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Law enforcement processing and the meaning of “authorised by law”

In October, there was a decision in the Scottish courts which will be of interest to data protection practitioners and lawyers when interpreting Part 3 of the Data Protection Act 2018 (law enforcement processing)  and more generally the UK GDPR, writes Alistair Sloan.

The General Teaching Council For Scotland v The Chief Constable of The Police Service of Scotland could fairly be described as a skirmish about expenses (known as costs in other parts of the UK) in seven Petitions to the Court of Session by the General Teaching Council for Scotland (“GTCS”) against the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Scotland (“Police Scotland”). The petitions essentially sought disclosure of information, held by Police Scotland, to the GTCS which the GTCS had asked Police Scotland for, but which the latter had refused to provide. 

This case will be of interest to data protection practitioners for two reasons: (1) there is some consideration by Lord Uist as to what “authorised by law” means in the context of processing personal data under Part 3 DPA 2018 for purposes other than law enforcement purposes; and (2) it contains a salutary reminder that while advice from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) can be useful, it can also be wrong; as well as the responsibilities of data controllers in relation to their decisions.

The GTCS is the statutory body responsible for the regulation of the teaching profession in Scotland. They are responsible for assessing the fitness of people applying to be added to the register of teachers in Scotland as well as the continuing fitness of those already on the register. In reliance of these functions, the GTCS had requested information from Police Scotland in order to assist it in fulfilling these duties. The information held by Police Scotland was processed by them for the law enforcement purposes; it thus fell within Part 3 of the DPA 2018. In response, the GTCS petitioned the Court of Session for orders requiring Police Scotland to release the information. Police Scotland did not oppose the Petitions and argued that it should not be found liable for the expenses of the GTCS in bringing the Petitions to the court. This was on the basis that it had not opposed them and it could not have given the GTCS information without the court’s order.

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The ICO advice to Police Scotland

Police Scotland refused to supply the information without a court order on the basis that to do so would be processing the personal data for purposes other than the law enforcement purposes where the disclosure was authorised by law in contravention of the second Data Protection Principle under Section 36 of the DPA 2018 which states:

“(1) The second data protection principle is that – (a) the law enforcement purpose for which personal data is collected on any occasion must be specified, explicit and legitimate, and (b) personal data so collected must not be processed in a manner that is incompatible with the purpose for which it was collected. 

(2) Paragraph (b) of the second data protection principle is subject to subsections (3) and (4). 

(3) Personal data collected for a law enforcement purpose may be processed for any other law enforcement purpose (whether by the controller that collected the data or by another controller) provided that – 

(a) the controller is authorised by law to process that data for the other purpose, and

(b) the processing is necessary and proportionate to that other purpose. 

(4) Personal data collected for any of the law enforcement purposes may not be processed for a purpose that is not a law enforcement purpose unless the processing is authorised by law.” 

Police Scotland was relying upon advice from the ICO. That advice was that Police Scotland “would require either an order of the court or a specific statutory obligation to provide the information”, otherwise Police Scotland would be breaching the requirements of the DPA 2018. A longer form of the advice provided by the ICO to Police Scotland may be found at paragraph 10 of Lord Uist’s decision.

The ICO’s advice to Police Scotland was in conflict with what the ICO said in its code of practice issued under section 121 of the DPA 2018. There the ICO said that “authorised by law” could be “for example, statute, common law, royal prerogative or statutory code”. 

Authorised by Law

Lord Uist decided that the position adopted by Police Scotland, and the advice given to them by the ICO, was “plainly wrong”; concluding that the disclosure of the information requested by the GTCS would have been authorised by law without a court order.

The law recognises the need to balance the public interest in the free flow of information to the police for criminal proceedings, which requires that information given in confidence is not used for other purposes, against the public interest in protecting the public by disclosing confidential  information to regulatory bodies charged with ensuring professionals within their scope of responsibility are fit to continue practising. In essence, when the police are dealing with requests for personal data processed for law enforcement purposes by regulatory bodies, they must have regard to the public interest in ensuring that these regulatory bodies, which exist to protect the public, are able to carry out their own statutory functions.

Perhaps more significantly, the law also recognises that a court order is not required for such disclosures to be made to regulatory bodies. This meant that there was, at common law, a lawful basis upon which Police Scotland could have released the information requested by the GTCS to them. Therefore, Police Scotland would not have been in breach of section 36(4) of the DPA 2018 had they provided the information without a court order.

In essence, a lack of a specific statutory power to require information to be provided to it, or a specific statutory requirement on the police to provide the information, does not mean a disclosure is not authorised by law. It is necessary, as the ICO’s code of practice recognises, to look beyond statute and consider whether there is a basis at common law. 

Police Scotland was required by Lord Uist to meet the expenses of the GTCS in bringing the Petitions. This was because the Petitions had been necessitated by Police Scotland requiring a court order when none was required. Lord Uist was clear that Police Scotland had to take responsibility for their own decision; it was not relevant to consider that they acted on erroneous advice from the ICO.

This case serves as a clear reminder that, while useful, advice from the ICO can be wrong. The same too, of course, applies in respect of the guidance published by the ICO. It can be a good starting point, but it should never be the starting and end point. When receiving advice from the ICO it is necessary to think about that advice critically; especially where, as here, the advice contradicts other guidance published by the ICO. It is necessary to consider why there is a discrepancy and which is correct: the advice or the guidance?

It may, of course, be the case that both are actually incorrect.

The finding of liability for expenses is also a reminder that controllers are ultimately responsible for the decisions that they take in relation to the processing of personal data.

It is not good enough to effectively outsource that decision-making and responsibility to the ICO. Taking tricky questions to the regulator does not absolve the controller from considering the question itself, both before and after seeking the advice of the ICO.

Finally, this case may also be a useful and helpful reference point when considering whether something is “authorised by law” for the purposes of processing under Part 3 of the DPA 2018. It is, however, a first instance decision (the Outer House of the Court of Session being broadly similar in status to the High Court in England and Wales) and that ought to be kept in mind when considering it.

Alistair Sloan is a Devil (pupil) at the Scottish Bar; prior to commencing devilling he was a solicitor in Scotland and advised controllers, data protection officers and data subjects on a range of information law matters. This article first appeared on the Act Now Blog.

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