When no complaint is found

Section 166 of the Data Protection Act 2018 has produced a reasonable amount of litigation arising out of what appear to be repeated fundamental misunderstandings by data subjects as to what section 166 provides them with. The Upper Tribunal has authoritatively, on more than one occasion, sated that the right afforded by section 166 of the 2018 Act is limited and does not provide a route for an unhappy data subject to appeal the outcome of their complaint to the Information Commissioner.

A recent FTT decision on section 166 took a slightly different approach, striking out the appeal on the grounds that the applicant had not even made a complaint to the Commissioner and so the Commissioner’s obligation to provide information as to the progress of the complaint was not even engaged.

On 25 May 2021, the applicant copied the Information Commissioner’s Office into an E-mail that had been sent to various other organisations. In that E-mail, the applicant raised a number of issues, none of which seem to have engaged the data protection legislation. There was, attached to the E-mail, an annotated copy of an E-mail that she had received days earlier from the Home Office.

On 8 June 2021, a case officer at the ICO wrote to the applicant to inform her that none of the issues she had raised fell within the jurisdiction of the Commissioner and advised her to complete one of the ICO’s complaint forms if she wished to raise a complaint under the data protection legislation.

The Commissioner argued that as no valid complaint had been made to his office there was no complaint to progress and therefore the application under section 166 of the Data Protection Act 2018 had no reasonable prospect of success.

Judge O’Connor agreed with the Commissioner and concluded that there was no reasonable prospect that the applicant could establish the contrary. Therefore, the application was dismissed. Judge O’Connor did go on to state that even if he was wrong on this, the Commissioner’s letter dated 8 June 2021 was a response and so the Tribunal would have had no jurisdiction under section 166 of the Act in any event.

This case is rather different to the usual section 166 cases that have been seen until now. It suggests that the Information Commissioner is taking a robust approach to what is and what is not a complaint. It has been the case for many years that the ICO would not typically respond to E-mails where they have simply been copied in. The Tribunal appears to be willing, at least in this case, to conclude that no complaint in terms of Article 77 of the UK GDPR or section 165 of the Data Protection Act 2018 has been made to the Commissioner where that is appropriate, and strike out section 166 applications which follow on the back of correspondence not amounting to a proper complaint.

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