Female SilhouetteThe Greater Manchester Police agreed, last week, to pay damages of £75,000 to a victim of domestic abuse whose private information had been wrongly disclosed by police officers.

The woman (“AB”) had agreed to allow Greater Manchester Police to make reference to the domestic abuse which she suffered at the hands of a former partner.  The agreement was that the facts of her case could be used as a case study in a proposed training exercise.  This was intended to improve understanding among officers and support agencies tasked with helping victims of domestic abuse.  Importantly, in providing such agreement, AB understood that the information concerned would be anonymised.

Unfortunately, AB’s sensitive personal information was disclosed by the police in an unanonymised form and to a wider audience. After this was discovered she made a complaint to the police which was not properly dealt with.

As a result, in 2015 AB issued a claim for misuse of private information and breach of the statutory duties owed under the Data Protection Act 1998.  AB suffered psychiatric injury as a result of the disclosure of the information and a claim for personal injury was also pleaded.  Aggravated damages were also claimed as a result of the way in which the police handled the complaint.

The matter was due to be tried in July 2016.  A few days before trial, the police agreed to apologise for the disclosure and to pay AB the sum of £75,000.

The damages paid reflect the fact that the information disclosed was extremely private.  It included graphic and alarming details concerning the suffering of a victim of domestic abuse.  The damages also reflected the devastating impact of the disclosure on AB.

AB’s comments about her feelings following discovery of the disclosure speak volumes:

I was completely mortified.  I felt humiliated, ashamed, embarrassed, and very exposed.  I felt numb and physically sick.  It was a truly horrendous feeling”.

The analysis of Mann J in Gulati & Others v MGN ([2015] EWHC 1482 (Ch)) provided useful guidance to the parties in determining the appropriate level of damages to be paid in the case.  The settlement also included undertakings regarding the compliance by the Greater Manchester Police with their legal obligations under the Data Protection Act, and treatment of AB’s information in the future.

By deciding to publicise the settlement of her case, AB hopes to raise awareness of her difficulties and help to prevent other individuals enduring a similarly unhappy experience.  Cases of this kind act as useful reminders of the potentially catastrophic impact of privacy and data breaches on people’s lives.

AB’s courage and dignity in overcoming the original abuse, dealing with the horrendous disclosure of her information and then handling of the litigation process has been extraordinary. Looking to the future, it is to be hoped that this case will act as a wake-up call for police forces around the country in terms of requiring better understanding and compliance with their legal obligations, particularly in cases involving vulnerable victims of crime.

Research by the civil liberties group Big Brother Watch recently identified more than 2,000 data breaches by police forces in just over four years up to December 2015.  The police have much work to do to put their house in order.

Nick McAleenan is a data privacy lawyer at JMW Solicitors LLP and represented the woman in her claim against GMP.