The Data Protection Act 1998 specifies the duties of local authorities and other agencies in relation to holding, storing and processing of the personal data of living individuals (referred to within the Act as data subjects). Such information will either be held on IT databases or in hard copy.
The Act terms people who request information from the council that it holds on them ‘data subjects’.
The Act terms staff who control the manner and the purpose of personal data processing ‘data controllers’.
The Act allows data subjects to know about and obtain information held on them by the local authority and other agencies.
In most circumstances it is only people (data subject) who the council holds information on who are allowed to receive information held about them by the local authority. The information provided by the local authority must only relate only to them and no one else.
If a solicitor makes a request on behalf of a client to access their case records, the solicitor must obtain written consent from the adult which allows the solicitor to receive the information. This consent must be sent to the local authority as part of the application.
Although there are no specific provisions in the Data Protection Act regarding access of records in relation to people who lack capacity, the Mental Capacity Act 2005 enables a third party to exercise subject access rights on behalf of such an adult. It is reasonable to assume, therefore that an attorney with authority to manage the property and affairs of an adult will have the appropriate authority. The same applies to a person appointed by the Court of Protection to make decisions about such matters.
In theory people (the data subjects) are allowed to receive all non-exempt information (see 3.1 Exempt Information below) held about them by the local authority. People making such requests should be asked what information they specifically want to see. This will reduce the likelihood of a request being denied due to the inclusion of exempt information.
In some circumstances it may not be possible to allow people to access to some or all of the information in their records, for example if it mentions another person (see 3.2 Third Party Information below), if giving them the information may cause them harm, or if it is needed for the prevention or detection of a crime. The person should usually be told the reason why it is not possible for them to access their records.
Correspondence between local authority departments and its legal services department is privileged and therefore also exempt from disclosure.
Responding to a request may involve providing information relating to another individual who can be identified from that information. This is third party information. In most cases, the local authority will require written consent of that third party before disclosing the information to the data subject.
The person making the request should find out in advance from the local authority whether fees are payable. See Bedford Borough Council’s leaflet: Your Right to see your Record.
Requests for access to information are called ‘Subject Access Requests (SARs)’. These must be made in writing in relation to information held by the local authority on the person. For more information and a suggested template letter see Find out how to Request your Personal Information.
The local authority has 40 calendar days to respond to a written request. This allows time for personal information to be collated all involved departments within the local authority, analysed to ensure it does not contain exempt information (see 3.1 Exempt Information) and decisions made about whether there is such information that cannot be given to the person.
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