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Data subject access requests

26 November 2015

Under the Data Protection Act 1998 individuals have the right to make a subject access request (SAR) to obtain personal information held about them by a data controller. When the original Act was passed in 1984, it is doubtful that one could have foreseen the technological developments that have occurred since. Gone are the days when an employer merely held on file an employee’s home address, payroll details and start date of employment.

Personal information now usually includes the employee’s mobile number, email address, bank details and health information, to name but a few items. In addition, they are likely to be named in seemingly endless chains of emails. As a result, SARs have become increasingly onerous to comply with and often require electronic searches of email systems and back-ups, resulting in both IT and HR teams being needed.

Unfortunately this has led to an increasing number of requests being made by dismissed employees in order to place an onerous task on the employer, or as a ‘fishing’ exercise to try to force disclosure before making a tribunal claim.

However, a recent High Court decision may give employers a new-found optimism that it is possible to challenge a SAR in scenarios when it is obvious that it has been made for vexatious and improper reasons. In Dawson-Damer and Ors v Taylor Wessing and Ors 2015, a group of claimants who were in a dispute with a trustee company based overseas submitted individual SARs to the trustee’s firm of solicitors who were based here in the UK.

They wanted copies of all personal data held by the solicitors relating to them, and when the solicitors declined to comply, they applied to the High Court for an order to require compliance. The court held the requests were made with the improper motive of seeking documents related to the litigation. It reinforced the point that the purpose of a SAR under the DPA is to enable an individual to establish what data is held about them by an organisation; it is not to be improperly used as a way to obtain documents in connection with litigation.

Matthew heads our employment team. He handles the full range of contentious and non-contentious employment law issues for clients. His particular specialisms include complex staff restructurings and employment issues concerning business transfers. Matthew is recommended by independent legal directory Chambers and Partners which describes him as ‘solutions-focused’ and ‘a solid and respected practitioner noted for his technical abilities’. He trained and worked at a City of London law firm.

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Matthew Clayton MA LLM (Cantab), CIPP/E
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