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  Data protection and the expert witness

Almost every expert witness should be registered under the Data Protection Act. Failure to be registered where necessary is a criminal offence. Are you breaking the law?

In recent months, several solicitors have been prosecuted and fined under the provisions of the Data Protection Act (DPA) 1998 (the ‘Act’). No doubt, this came as something of a surprise to them. The simple fact is that many people who process personal data in the course of their work still do not appreciate that they have duties under the Act – and we suspect that includes a fair few expert witnesses too!

Experts and personal data

The Act identifies personal data as being data related ‘to a living individual who can be identified from that data, or from that data and other information in the possession of or likely to come into the possession of the data controller, and includes any expression of opinion about the individual and any indication of the intentions of the data controller or any other person in respect of the individual’.

In the course of your work, you may hold and process data for a number of reasons. You might:

  • collect and store information about individual solicitors for the purposes of case management
  • hold information about individuals in connection with your instruction, e.g. social services case notes, pension records, medical histories, criminal records, education records
  • hold records relating to individuals employed by you
  • collect and hold information and data relevant to research into your particular field.

In short, if recording, storing or using information about people in some form of database, you need to ask yourself whether the Act applies to you.

Processing

Having established whether the data relate to identifiable individuals, you will next need to consider whether the data is being ‘processed’. There is a distinction to be made between the storage and processing of data and the mere receipt and holding of information relating to an individual. The Act applies to the processing of personal data only where such processing is wholly or partly by automatic means, or where the personal data form part of a ‘filing system’. Where personal data are concerned, the definition of ‘processing’ becomes very broad.

Information that is processed automatically will be covered by the Act. Information processed manually (referred to as ‘manual records’) is not intended to be covered by the Act unless it is held in an organised filing system structured either by reference to individuals or by criteria relating to individuals which allow ready access to specific information about a particular individual. The key consideration is not the time and effort involved in finding a piece of information about a person, but whether there is a system in place that allows the organisation to find that information without searching through every item in a set of information.

Most experts will be processing personal data as part of their forensic practice. So it’s likely that they should be registered with the Information Commissioner.

For more on the Act, its key schedules, handling access requests, GMC guidance and how to get registered, follow the link below.

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Issue 59
March 2010

Data protection and the expert witness
Handling irrelevant evidence
Reaching a wide audience


Current issue
September 2017

New rules when suing individuals for fees
To whose benefit?
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