FOIMan ponders the importance of remembering the people at the heart of important legal decisions.
My training courses on FOI, Data Protection and other matters have a cast of, well, several. It’s hard to talk about any legal issue without mentioning the parties in one dispute or another. The trouble is that you start to become blasé about them. They’re just names.
Sometimes they cause amusement. Who hasn’t giggled at Fish Legal? Whenever the law of confidence is under discussion, a chap called Coco crops up and my mind always turns to the circus. Often FOI cases provide an excuse to improve one’s geographical knowledge of the UK – from Magherafelt to Kirklees. And I’ve learnt of public bodies that never would have crossed my path if not for the Environmental Information Regulations – I thought the Export Credits Guarantee Department was a front organisation for James Bond.
There’s one name that always comes up when talking about subject access under the Data Protection Act. Gaskin. Until last week I wasn’t even certain what his first name was. What I knew was this. Mr Gaskin was taken into care as a child. He had a bit of a rough time, and when he was an adult he made a subject access request to Liverpool City Council for records relating to his time in care. The reason he comes up on Data Protection courses is that what he received was a bundle of heavily redacted documents that told him nothing about the decisions that had been made about him whilst he had been in care. Ultimately his case reached the European Court of Human Rights and this established that organisations couldn’t just blank out information that affected third parties. They had to consider the point of data protection – to protect the privacy of individuals. It’s a story I regularly trot out.
When I deliver Data Protection courses, I remind delegates that it isn’t about legislation, or about ticking boxes. Data Protection is about people. About protecting their rights. To a certain extent so is FOI – often it is used by people trying to fight a perceived injustice to themselves or society as a whole.
Last week I read a biography of Mr Gaskin. It was brief, but moving. This name had a life behind it. He’d had much more than a “rough time”. And what’s more, his victory in Strasbourg was not the happy ending that I’d assumed. It is a tragic and disturbing story. I won’t repeat it, but I encourage you to read it for yourself. It reminds us that there’s a reason why we have a Data Protection Act, and why the law is an important part (but not the only part) of protecting our human rights.
So next time you read a news story or a blog post about a legal judgment – like the recent victory by the Spanish lawyer Mario Costeja González against Google – think about the people behind the names. There’s often much more to their story than might be apparent from an analysis of the case’s significance.
Oh, and Mr Gaskin’s first name? It was Graham.