In June the ICO updated its Subject Access Code of Practice, which gives guidance to data controllers on how to respond to subject access requests from data subjects. The Code itself is not legally binding, but provides advice on good practice to promote compliance with the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA). With less than a year to go before the introduction of the GDPR, it seems a shame that this revised Code does not address the forthcoming amendments to the law, such as the reduced time limits to respond to a subject access request (which will decrease from the current 40 days to a mere 30) but it does make recommendations for more streamlined and user-friendly options for responding and, in addition to helpful notes on how to handle requests and deal with tricky issues, serves as a reminder of the basic entitlements, which are to:

  • Be told whether any personal data is being processed;
  • Receive a description of the personal data, the reasons it is being processed and whether it will be given to any other organizations or people;
  • Receive a copy of the personal data; and
  • Receive details of the source of the data (where available).

For many businesses, subject access requests can be a time-consuming and frustrating aspect of data protection compliance. There is an understandable urge to ignore them, or provide a minimal response, particularly if the request is made in the context of an existing dispute, or preempting litigation and disclosure/discovery of documents. However, the law states that data controllers must be prepared to make extensive efforts to find and retrieve the information requested in a subject access request, unless it would be unreasonable or would involve disproportionate effort to do so. There is an exemption in the DPA accordingly. This issue has been tentatively raised in the past but the recent cases of Dawson-Damer[1] and Ittiadieh/Deer and Oxford University[2] (both decisions of the Court of Appeal) have given the ICO the opportunity to provide more clarification on these points:

  1. Disproportionate effort is not defined in the DPA, but there may be cases where the work/expense involved in complying with a request by providing a copy of the information in permanent form exceeds the individual’s right of access to their personal data;
  2. Data controllers can take into account any difficulties in finding the information and complying with the request. (This approach is consistent with the EU concept of proportionality, but the ICO expects data controllers to balance any difficulties with the benefits the information might bring to the data subject);
  3. Data controllers have the burden of proof to show that they have taken all reasonable steps to comply with a subject access request and it would be disproportionate in all the circumstances to take further steps; and
  4. It is good practice to engage with the person making the request, to help reduce the costs and effort involved in searching for the information requested. (If there is a complaint, the data controller’s willingness to engage with the requestor will be considered).

Overall, the ICO expects data controllers to act positively towards those making a subject access request and to have readily accessible systems in place to respond to requests. Those receiving a request should deal with them promptly and fairly from the start. Subject access is a fundamental right and (as noted in the Code) an opportunity to improve customer service and delivery, by increasing levels of trust and confidence, streamlining processes and providing better customer care. These aims are consistent with the GDPR and so even though this Code is not specifically targeted at compliance with the new laws, companies should benefit from its up to date guidance.