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Data protection, client information, and subject access requests

Jonathan Swift QC considers the lines of defence available to firms faced with a subject access request, and whether they should be treated as data controllers at all

22 May 2017

All law firms are data controllers under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA). Two recent decisions of the Court of Appeal highlight the risk that client information held by firms can be vulnerable to disclosure through subject access requests under the DPA. The cases are Dawson-Damer v Taylor Wessing LLP [2017] EWCA Civ 74 and Deer v University of Oxford [2017] EWCA Civ 121. But how great is this risk?

The risk arises when a DPA subject access request is directed to a law firm by someone who is not that firm’s client. The requestor only asks to see their personal data, but that information may well be held in the firm’s client files – particularly if the requestor is in dispute with the client. The judgments in Dawson-Damer and Deer make important points about the lines of defence that are available to a firm facing this type of request, but there is also one i...

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