The severe disruption to the legal process wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted judges to take a practical approach and, in some cases, to waive strict compliance with procedural rules. The High Court did just that in enabling a local authority to defend a claim for damages arising from data protection breaches.
The case concerned a woman who attended a child protection conference convened to discuss the welfare of her daughter. Following the meeting, the council disclosed her GP medical records to all those who had attended, including social workers, the police, school nurses and the woman's ex-partner.
Together with basic details like her date of birth and address, the records disclosed sensitive personal information concerning various medical conditions from which the woman had suffered and procedures that she had undergone. Following an internal investigation, the council acknowledged that disclosure of the records amounted to a data protection breach and apologised to her.
Subsequently, the woman issued proceedings against the council, alleging breaches of the Data Protection Act 1998, breach of confidence, misuse of private information and violations of her human right to respect for her privacy and family life. Up to £10,000 in damages was claimed.
A default judgment was entered against the council after it failed to respond to pre-action letters or to acknowledge service of the claim form within the required 14 days. Pointing to the administrative challenges arising from the pandemic, the council applied to have that judgment set aside.
Ruling on the matter, the Court noted that the claim form had been posted to the council's offices on 25 March 2020, two days after the UK entered lockdown. The offices had been duly shut and were manned only by a skeleton staff who were unfamiliar with court proceedings. It was in those circumstances neither fair nor reasonable to post the claim form to offices which the woman's solicitor knew, or should have known, would be closed.
The council had shown something of a cavalier attitude to pre-action protocols, but the Court was satisfied that it had a properly arguable defence to the woman's claim, which was not accompanied by any evidence that she had suffered actionable injury or loss. But for the COVID-19 crisis, the Court was satisfied that the council would have acknowledged receipt of the claim form in accordance with the rules. The default judgment was set aside, thus enabling the council to defend the claim.