In the case of Nowak v Data Protection Commissioner, the High Court upheld the Circuit Court’s ruling that in circumstances where the Data Protection Commissioner declines to investigate a complaint, the Circuit Court has no jurisdiction to hear an appeal. 

In Brief

In this case the appellant was a registered student and unsuccessful in an examination and submitted a personal data access request.  He submitted a formal complaint to the DPC, in respect of the refusal to supply him with a copy of his examination script, on the grounds that it did not constitute “personal data”.  The DPC responded that there was no obligation under the Acts to investigate a complaint in circumstances where there had been no substantive breach of the Acts.  The appellant appealed to the Circuit Court against this decision. 

The Circuit Court held that it did not have jurisdiction pursuant to section 26 of the Acts to hear an appeal, as the Data Protection Commission had, pursuant to s. 10(1)(b), declined to investigate the appellant’s complaints.  The Acts do not provide for a right of appeal in such circumstances. Judge Linnane went on to hold that if she had jurisdiction to hear the appeal that she would have upheld the decision arrived at by the DPC and would have agreed with his views that the examination script did not constitute “personal data”. 

Section 26(3)(b) of the Acts provides that an appeal may be brought to the High Court on a point of law against a decision of the Circuit Court in relation to an appeal that has been brought to it. 

The Issues

The following points of law arose on the hearing of the appeal to the High Court: 

  1. Was the Circuit Court correct to conclude that it had no jurisdiction to hear an appeal in circumstances where the DPC had not embarked upon an investigation of the merits of the complaint but had declined to do so having formed the view that the complaint was frivolous and vexatious; 
  2. If the Circuit Court had jurisdiction should it have determined that the DPC was correct in concluding that the examination scripts did not constitute "personal data" and; 
  3. Should the Circuit Court have concluded that the complaint advanced by the appellant to the DPC was one that was frivolous and vexatious. 

The Decision

At the High Court, Birmingham J. affirmed the order of the Circuit Court. Birmingham J. agreed with the Circuit Court judge that the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court is to hear an appeal against a decision that has been arrived at after there has been an investigation. Absent an investigation of the complaint, and a decision relating to the investigation, the Circuit Court has no jurisdiction. 

The Court held that the effect of sections 10(1)(b)(i) and 26(1) when read together was quite clear and fully supported the conclusion reached in the Circuit Court, that it did not have jurisdiction to hear the appeal.  In regard to the substantive issue, Birmingham J. stated that even if it had been possible to appeal to the Circuit Court, the Court would have been correct to uphold the conclusions of the DPC that the material in question did not amount to “personal data” within the meaning of the Acts and accordingly would dismiss the appeal.