Line to take - LTT28 - Legal aid costs

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  • Section/Regulation: s40
  • Issue: Legal aid costs
  • Source: Decision Notice
  • Details: [Redacted name] / Legal Services Commission (23 October 2006)
  • Related Lines to Take: n/a
  • Related Documents: FS50076855, Awareness Guidance 1
  • Contact: EW/RM
  • Date: 11/12/2006
  • Policy Reference: LTT28
  • © Copyright Information Commissioner's Office, re-used with permission
  • Original source linked from here: LTT

Line to take

The amount of money received by an individual in legal aid is personal data, the disclosure of which would breach the first data protection principle.

Further Information

In complaint FS50076855, the complainant had requested from the Legal Services Commission (LSC) the amount of legal aid received by his opponent in a court case.

The LSC refused to disclose this information on the grounds that it was personal data. In its review letter to the complainant it explained that personal data is defined as data relating to an individual from which that individual can be identified and will include information about someone’s salary.

It states that, “an application for legal aid is made by an individual and is based on that individual’s personal circumstances [...] Legal aid is, of course public money - administered by the Legal Services Commission on behalf of the Government [...] Legal aid paid in respect of an individual’s case can be seen as a state benefit paid on his behalf [...] If salary details are personal data, any benefits would also be seen as such, at least in terms of the detail of the amount received.”

The Commissioner agreed with this position. The DN issued in respect of this complaint states:

“23. ...the Commissioner considers that the costs incurred by a particular individual in pursuing legal proceedings is information relating to that individual and as such the information would constitute personal data as defined by section 1(1) of the DPA. In this case it is not possible to disassociate the costs incurred from the individual named by the complainant.
24. Furthermore, the Commissioner agrees with the LSC that legal aid should be viewed as a state benefit, comparable with housing benefit. This strengthens the argument that the information is personal data as the very fact that an individual is eligible for legal aid implies something about their financial position. The Commissioner is therefore satisfied that the complainant’s request could not be complied with without disclosing personal data about his opponent.”

The DN goes on to consider whether or not disclosure would contravene the data protection principles and in particular the first data protection principle which provides that the processing of personal data shall be fair & lawful. In concluding that the disclosure would breach the fairness element of the first principle it takes account of what the reasonable expectations of the data subject would be in respect of how information of this nature would be used and to whom it would be disclosed.

Because the fact that an individual is eligible for legal aid reveals something about their financial position, an individual would generally not expect such information to be made freely available.

The first data protection principle also requires that an individual is informed in general terms how their data will be used and this in turn will shape their expectations. In considering the concerns of the data subject, the DN takes account of the views of the LSC on this matter “...there is nothing in the information provided to someone applying for legal aid that the LSC would disclose the amount of legal aid they may receive to any member of the public on request. Indeed the LSC has advised the Commissioner that from the notices included on application forms an applicant is likely to conclude that information relating to their claim would only be disclosed for a limited number of purposes only.”

In light of the above the DN found that the disclosure would breach the data protection principles.

It further notes that the complainant’s opponent had not consented to the disclosure of his data. Though explicit refusal of consent does not necessarily mean that disclosure would breach the first data protection principle, it is a relevant factor.

Advice on this case was given by Assistant Commissioners in the Data Protection GPD teams who confirmed the decision set out in the notice.