In a blow for claimants creatively using their rights under the Data Protection Act (DPA) - in this case to restrict use of personal information in the public arena - Mr Justice Eady in the High Court ruled that the DPA 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, Robin Peirce, which the Conservative candidate, 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, Oxfordshire.
Mr Quentin claimed that the allegations made in the leaflets were malicious (and sought relief in respect of the tort of injurious falsehood). However, Mr Quentin also asserted that in referring to him personally, the leaflets had infringed the data protection principles that govern the processing of an individual's personal data under the DPA.
Mr Justice Eady found that the information about Mr Quentin was "personal data" under the DPA and also that publication of the leaflet, which had been prepared on a computer, did constitute "processing".
However, the Court did not accept that there had been any infringement of DPA principles in respect of data accuracy and fair 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 DPA principles then he had already applied when addressing that tort.
The Court forcefully rejected the claimant's data protection arguments 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 electoral 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". Using data protection to prevent unwanted publicity in a policitcal campaign is certainly novel, although in situations where there must clearly be some reasonable expectation that personal issues will arise, it's not entirely surprising that the data protection arguments did not stand up to scrutiny.