In a case heard before The Honourable Mr Justice Eady in the High Court at the beginning of April, it was held that the Data Protection Act is not to be used to afford a set of parallel remedies for failed defamation actions.
This case dealt with leaflets published in a district council election campaign by the Liberal Democrat candidate, Mr Robin Peirce, which the Conservative candidate, Mr Christopher Quentin, sought to challenge in court. The leaflets made a number of statements about Mr Quentin's attendance at meetings and levels of participation in a public enquiry into planning permission for houses at the Village Crossroads in Woodcote, in Oxfordshire.
Mr Quentin claimed that the allegations made in the leaflets were both malicious (and sought relief in respect of the tort of injurious falsehood) and also infringed the principles for data processing set out in the Schedule to the Data Protection Act 1998.
Mr Justice Eady found that the information about Mr Quentin was "personal data" under the Data Protection Act and also that publication of the leaflet, which had been prepared on a computer, did constitute "processing" under that Act. However, he did not accept that there had been any infringement of the requirements under the Data Protection Act of accuracy and fairness in the processing of data. When considering the issue of injurious falsehood, the judge had already found that Mr Peirce had not significantly misrepresented any facts and had not acted out of malice. He noted that he saw no reason to apply different criteria or standards to the Data Protection Act principles then he had already applied when addressing that tort.
Mr Justice Eady was quite definite in his rejections of the Data Protection arguments forwarded in this case and, in relation to the suggestion that Mr Peirce should not have "processed" the information relating to Mr Quentin without advising him in advance, Mr Justice Eady stated:
"I decline, however, to interpret the statute in a way which results in absurdity. Plainly, it cannot have been the intention of the legislator to require electrical candidates to give their opponents advance warning in each time reference is to be made to them in the document that happens to be computer generated."
Later in the judgement he stated:
"I am by no means persuaded that it is necessary or proportionate to interpret the scope of the statute so as to afford a set of parallel remedies when damaging information has been published about someone, but which is neither defamatory nor malicious".
At the very outset, Mr Eady stated that the data protection argument took this case "into largely uncharted territory". This judgement makes abundantly clear, however, that now that this territory has been explored, it is not open to future claimants, no matter how bold they may be.