In the case of Christopher John Quinton v Robin Heys Peirce, the High Court has refused to interpret the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) in such a way as to provide a “parallel” remedy for the claimant where his claim for malicious falsehood failed.
The parties to the dispute were district council candidates for Woodcote in Oxfordshire. Quinton was the Conservative candidate and Peirce the Liberal Democrat candidate. The dispute concerned an election leaflet distributed by Peirce. The leaflet referred to proposed housing developments in the Woodcote area to which most of the local residents were opposed. It mentioned two district council planning meetings and pointed out that Quinton had failed to attend either. It also referred to a newspaper article written by Quinton that appeared to encourage local residents to submit suggestions to the district council about land in the local area suitable and available for development. In the leaflet, Peirce suggested that Quinton’s failure to attend the meetings and the contents of his article suggested that, if elected, he would not adequately represent the local residents and that he, in fact, supported housing developments in the area. Quinton brought proceedings for malicious falsehood and infringement of the data protection principle requiring accuracy in the processing of personal data (s4(4), s70(2) and the fourth principle in schedule 1).
The claim for malicious falsehood failed. The High Court found that the information contained in the leaflet was factually true and that Peirce was entitled to take advantage of it for electoral purposes. Furthermore, the court was not persuaded that Peirce had acted maliciously. He had simply been partial, biased and hard-hitting but these should not be equated with malice. A claimant had a high hurdle to overcome to succeed in establishing malice.
The claim for infringement of the data protection principle also failed. Although the court was persuaded that the information in the leaflet was personal data and that Peirce was a data controller it did not accept that there had been an infringement of the principle relating to accuracy. The court saw no reason to apply different criteria or standards in this respect from those it had applied when addressing the claim for malicious falsehood. Whilst the statements were biased they were not factually inaccurate and malicious. Eady J said:
“I am by no means persuaded that it is necessary or proportionate to interpret the scope of the [DPA] so as to afford a set of parallel remedies when damaging information has been published about someone, but which is neither defamatory nor malicious. Nothing was cited to support such a far ranging proposition, whether from debate in the legislature or from subsequent judicial dicta.”
The court rejected Quinton’s argument that to be fair under the DPA Peirce should have notified him in advance that the information was being processed. The court said that it would be absurd if the DPA required electoral candidates to give opponents advance warning each time reference was made to them in a document that happened to be computer generated.
From the High Court’s reasoning it seems that if the claim for malicious falsehood had succeeded then the claim for infringement of the data protection principles would also have succeeded. Under s14(1), the court could have ordered Peirce to rectify the data which, in this case, would presumably have meant Peirce publishing Quinton’s version of events. Whilst this case does seem to open up the possibility of a new avenue of claim parallel to a claim in defamation or malicious falsehood, it is questionable whether the DPA should be used or is suitable to be used in this way.