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Friday, 16 November, 2001, 11:59 GMT
Court backs data privacy complaint
Electoral roll sample
Brian Robertson objects to personal details being sold
A retired accountant has won a landmark case over whether the supply of information from the electoral register to commercial organisations interfered with his right to privacy.

Brian Robertson went to court against the government over Wakefield City Council's refusal to grant his request that his name and address would not be supplied without his consent.

Mr Robertson, 58, of Pontefract, West Yorkshire, declined to register in January this year and subsequently lost the right to vote in the General Election.

He objected to receiving junk mail as a result of his information being sold and was also seeking 1,000 nominal damages for the loss of his voting rights.

EU laws 'flouted'

His counsel, Nicholas Blake QC, told Mr Justice Maurice Kay at the High Court in London that the supply of the register to commercial organisations was in principle an interference with the right to private life and privacy.

Such information should only be used for electoral purposes, for purposes to which the subject consented, or for other purposes which were justified in the public interest.

The judge found that the government had breached the European Convention on Human Rights in that the interference to Mr Robertson's private life was disproportionate.

All local authorities sell their electoral registers for commercial use but not many people know this

Solicitor Andrew Lockley
Mr Robertson, who is unwell, was not present for the judgement - the first time that the issue of commercial access to public registers has been examined by the courts.

His lawyers said that the case would affect every person of voting age, every local authority and a number of government departments.

Solicitor Andrew Lockley said: "All local authorities sell their electoral registers for commercial use but not many people know this.

"Mr Robertson objected to this and has drawn attention to the fact that the democratic right to vote is conditional, rather than absolute.

'Mutual benefits'

"Mr Robertson's victory shows that the Human Rights Act can protect all the citizens of this country and is very much alive and well in spite of doubts recently expressed."

The question of what orders should be made and a possible application by the government for permission to appeal will be resolved at another hearing next Tuesday.

The government had argued that there was a legitimate purpose in providing commercial concerns with general access to the register.

It said the benefits resulting from such disclosure were enjoyed both by consumers and suppliers and hence by the economy and the community generally.

But Mr Justice Kay said that selling the register without affording individual electors a right of objection was a disproportionate way in which to give effect to the legitimate objective in question.

"This is particularly so in view of the implications of technological advance.

"So far as I can see, no voices are being raised in opposition to this analysis apart from those representing the commercial concerns in question. The evidence is really all one way."

Immediate impact

The judge also found that local authorities had been selling registers without following the relevant EU rules, which the government failed to enact fully in the 1998 Data Protection Act.

He said that voters should be able to complain directly to electoral registration officers and, if necessary, then to the courts.

Mr Lockley said that the judgment would have an immediate impact as local authorities were presently compiling the next electoral register.

"Government will need to act quickly and in a co-ordinated way to avoid an avalanche of complaints to local authorities and the courts from disgruntled electors."

See also:

07 May 99 | UK Politics
Voters' details for sale
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