Data Subject Access Requests – Stick To What's Reasonable, Proportionate, And Has The Proper Motive, Says UK Court

In August, the High Court, in Dawson-Damer & Ors v Taylor Wessing [2015] EWHC 2366 (Ch), refused an application to compel a UK law firm ("TW") to comply with a data subject access request ("DSAR") under the Data Protection Act 1998 ("DPA"). Applying his findings from an earlier judgment (Elliott v Lloyds TSB (2012)), His Honour Judge Behrens (i) took account of the motive behind the DSAR and (ii) held that any search responsive to a DSAR did not have to go beyond what was reasonable and proportionate.

The court application and the original DSAR were made by Mrs Dawson-Damer ("DD"), the beneficiary of a Bahamian trust who is suing the trustee, the Grampian Trust Company, in the Bahamas in its refusal to make distributions for the benefit of her adopted children (among other things). TW have been Grampian's English solicitors for 30 years, holding more than 50 historical paper files, as well as more recent computerised ones. A DSAR was made to TW requesting a copy of all personal data held about DD (DSARs were also made for DD's children). The firm refused, claiming the exemption for legal professional privilege would apply to the majority of documents held, and that it would be disproportionate and unreasonable to expect TW to search through in order to determine what - of 30 years' of accumulated material - was privileged or not. TW also said that the extent of any legal privilege was a matter of Bahamian law, not English, and that this could only be established in the proceedings brought by DD in the Bahamas.

DD argued that the special relationship between a trustee and a beneficiary meant any legal privilege would be "joint" and could not be asserted against DD; DD argued also that TW had made no effort to try to identify information it held which was not exempt, and was therefore obliged to search its documents and provide any non-privileged information that was responsive to the DSARs.

The court had to...

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