£90,000 Damages for Life Changing Data Protection Breach

There can surely be no more serious data breach than one which does not ‘merely’ put a person at risk of embarrassment, financial loss or loss of privacy, than one which exposes a person to actual risk of harm to life and limb.


I have written before about the case of a client of my firm (‘A’) who must remain anonymous as they are in the witness protection programme because of the threat to their life from criminal individuals against whom our client had previously testified.


Financial problems had sadly driven our client to bankruptcy in August 2011. In view of our client’s status in the witness protection programme the bankruptcy Order was quite specific: our client’s details were not to be published in the London Gazette (which is what happens in ‘ordinary’ bankruptcy cases).


Sadly and shockingly the Official Receiver and the Insolvency Service failed to heed the Court Order and published full details of our client in the Gazette including their real name, witness protection name and address.


Such was the severity of the risk which this totally reprehensible error caused to our client, they were immediately contacted by the Police and were instructed that in 2 hours time Officers would be arriving to transport them to a safe location. Having lived at their current address since 1999, our client was now about to be moved to a ‘safe house’ hundreds of miles away in a different part of the country. Our client’s whole life was about to be uprooted and they had only 2 hours in which to pack 2 holdalls of belongings, and nothing more.


Our client was not allowed to tell any of their friends, work colleagues, not even their relationship partner what was happening to them or where they were going. Not only was our client’s physical location being changed, but they had to have a new name and identity imposed upon them. As far as our client’s former friends and partner were concerned therefore A simply disappeared into thin air overnight. A more minor, but nonetheless upsetting detail is that A had to leave pet fish behind in the hurry to move, who subsequently died from neglect.


As can be imagined, the psychological effect of these events upon our client was immense, and  they were thrown into turmoil.


Imagine having to leave behind virtually the entire contents of your home and never to be able to return to it. To not be able to tell your partner or friends what is happening to you. To have to create a new fictitious ‘life story’ to tell to your new community of neighbours and work colleagues.


Our client quite rightly sought damages for this trauma and the financial losses suffered as a result of the negligence of the Official Receiver and the Insolvency Service.


Negligence was admitted early on, but the extent of our client’s losses were denied and our client had to go through a long and arduous Court process to achieve the compensation which they deserved.


It seemed that the Defendants simply did not to any real extent appreciate the full impact of their negligence upon our client and seemed to consider what our client had suffered to be a relatively minor inconvenience.


This was reflected in the fact that the Defendant’s first offer of settlement was a derisory £5,000. £5,000 as compensation for the loss of a person’s home, friends, relationship, treasured belongings and even their name? Our client quite rightly rejected this offer which was frankly more comparable to the level of damages that are awarded in straightforward claims for whiplash injury….


The callous attitude of the Defendants towards A was amply demonstrated by the tactics the Defendants adopted in fighting A’s claim for compensation. Firstly, they asked A to prove ownership of all the routine and modest items of contents/clothing that A had to abandon at their old house. The Defendants should have asked themselves if they keep documentary records of all the clothes they ever buy or of all the contents of their homes. The idea that a person who had to abandon their home at such short notice, would be able to produce documents/ receipts/ photographs or other evidence of all of their possessions and household goods was not only unreasonable but also insulting. Did the Defendants really think it likely that A lived in the house without any clothes, without any furniture, without any household contents? The Defendants appeared to show no understanding of the reality of what they had put A through.


Secondly, we had obtained evidence from a consultant psychiatrist confirming that as a result of the exposure, and the trauma of enforced ‘exile’ A had developed Depression, for which treatment by psychotherapy was required. It was perhaps not surprising that the Defendants wanted a second opinion from another expert appointed by themselves, as this is usual procedure in high value claims, but what was unusual and shocking was that the Defendant’s slip- shod attitude to protecting our client’s privacy, and failing to appreciate the real danger A had been put in, seemed to have rubbed off on the psychiatrist they appointed who repeatedly asked A to disclose A’s current address to him, and the addresses of Police safe houses where A had previously stayed. Quite rightly A withheld this.


Not only had A lost most of the possessions in their home, but also the value of all the money A had invested in ‘making a house a home’ in that property over the years, which was a 2 bedroomed council house for which A had not only a lifelong tenancy but also a right to buy. A’s enforced relocation was not only to a totally different area of the country but also totally different housing – our client was placed by the Police into warden controlled accommodation for the elderly, with neighbours who were all much older than A, increasing the sense of isolation A already had by being exiled from the locality where A’s brother, son and grandchildren lived. This small bungalow was also cramped and unsuitable for A’s pet dogs. It was the opinion of our expert psychiatrist that these living conditions and consequent social withdrawal were having an ongoing detrimental effect on A’s mental health, and an important part of the claim which we advanced on A’s behalf was to recover the cost of relocation into a home which was comparable to the one A was living in before this event.


In view of the failure of the Defendant to put forward a sensible offer of settlement the case proceeded towards trial and then finally in 2016, with just a few days to go before the trial was due to commence, we negotiated a settlement for our client in the sum of £90,000 …some 18 times the amount initially offered.


This is certainly a case in which salt was rubbed into the Claimant’s wounds by the Defendant’s decision to drag the claim out for so long and to make a series of derisory offers of settlement before finally seeing sense almost literally just before the doors of Court opened, in this manner deliberately compounding, or so it seems, the wrong the Defendant had done to our client in the first place by their grossly negligent handling of A’s private data.


After this experience, life will never be the same again for our client but they were greatly appreciative for the effort with which my firm fought on their behalf for justice over the many years of this long running case and our client’s words at the conclusion of the case, expressed in a letter to my colleague Mr Bernard Morron were as follows –


I cannot thank you enough for all that you have done for me. It was a long drawn out case and I know you did your best for me and will always be thankful to you for everything you have accomplished. Your reassurance was most welcome and I know you fought hard for me and you were confident on a good outcome….. I would like to thank everyone, it showed your character as an outstanding Solicitor as this case was unusual.


An unusual case, and whilst the final settlement was on many levels very satisfactory, I am sure that our client would give back every single penny of the settlement to have the mistake which began this terrible sequence of events never happen.