Chief Constable and Police Commissioner face court action over persistent data and information breaches

County Court claims have been filed naming Julia Mulligan, the Police and Crime Commissioner for North Yorkshire and her Chief Constable, Dave Jones, as defendants over persistent breaches of both the Data Protection Act, 1998 and the Freedom of Information Act, 2000.

The court action in both cases has been taken out by investigative journalist, Neil Wilby.

Recovery of costs of the time spent dealing with both the PCC’s office, and the police force’s Civil Disclosure Unit, over their failure to comply with the law over two data subject access and eleven freedom of information requests is claimed.

One information request made by Mr Wilby took 373 days before a response was given. The request simply asked for the number of sergeants in the force with the surname ‘Smith’.

A court order compelling the Commissioner and the Chief Constable to lawfully dispose of the data and information requests within 14 days is also sought.

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The PCC’s acting Chief Executive, Simon Dennis, initially instructed Joint Corporate Legal Services, which serves both the police force and the PCC’s office, to respond to the claim.

Acting Force Solicitor and Head of Legal Services, Jane Wintermeyer, confirmed receipt of those instructions from the PCC and intimated that her department would also deal with the claim against the Chief Constable, once it has been served on him by the court.

Mrs Wintermeyer also says: “The Civil Disclosure Unit are (sic) continuing to deal with the  outstanding Subject Access Request, FOI’s and Reviews and will revert as soon as they can”. Which is, on any reasonable view, a frank admission that the PCC and the force are operating outside of the law in dealing with Mr Wilby’s requests.

However, following objections raised by Mr Wilby to both Mr Dennis and the Chief Constable, Mrs Wintermeyer was replaced by an outside firm of solicitors. Leeds law firm, Weightmans, has filed the acknowledgement of service with the court. The protest against the involvement of Mrs Wintermeyer was grounded in the fact that she is presently the subject of two serious, and unresolved, conduct complaints.

The involvement of Weightmans has already proved controversial. Their senior partner, Nick Collins, who is handling the claim had, in early skirmishes, made the quite astonishing assertion that ALL of Mr Wilby’s freedom of information requests were classified by both North Yorkshire Police and the PCC’s office as “vexatious”. He has since withdrawn the allegation, confirmed that NONE of the requests were in fact vexatious, and offered a retraction and an apology. He claims that he was NOT acting on instructions from the police or the Commissoner’s office when making this outrageous and offensive claim – and that he simply made it up himself.

Unperturbed, the errant lawyer then ventures into the area of “vexatious” data subject access requests. Data access is governed by S7 of the Data Protection Act and the concept of a “vexatious” request under the Act would test even the most experienced data practitioners. There is certainly no legal precedent that is readily accessible and, despite being invited to provide one, Mr Collins has so far declined to do so.

As Mr Wilby has only ever made one data request each to North Yorkshire Police and the PCC – neither of which are finalised appropriately several months later – it is difficult to see where Mr Collins is going with this inference.

There has, however, been no retraction of another wild, unevidenced assertion by Mr Collins to the effect that the “large” number of information requests made by Mr Wilby (a total of nineteen in two years by an investigative journalist to two different data controllers) was a significant factor in causing 500+ other requests per year to be finalised outside of the statutory period. Made all the more incredible by that fact that published data shows non-compliance was at its worst before Mr Wilby made his first of those requests in September 2014.

To top that all off, Mr Collins asserts that his clients have not broken the law: In the face of the most compelling and overwhelming evidence. He is refusing to say whether he is acting on instructions from the police, and the PCC, in order to make such claims or, as with the false ‘vexatious’ submission, he has simply made this up himself, as well.

But the biggest difficulty of all faced by Mr Collins is that he has signed Statements of Truth, below the two Defence documents filed on behalf of the Chief Constable, and the Police Commissioner, that are both palpably false. It would also be difficult to persuade a judge that he had an honest belief in their truth, given what he has alleged and then later admitted.

He is presently the subject of a complaint to the Solicitors Regulatory Authority – and Mr Wilby has invited the court, in his Reply to Defence, to apply sanctions against Mr Collins under Civil Procedure Rule 32.14 which deals with false witness evidence (see below).

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All these shenanigans, which have also included peremptory, dark threats as to the financial consequences to Mr Wilby of not abandoning the claims, have already cost the North Yorkshire precept payer a sum estimated to be in excess of £20,000. Weightmans were invited, as a matter relevant to the issues in dispute, and to the proportionality of their defence, to state exactly how much has been charged. They have, so far, declined to do so. Indeed, they didn’t even have the courtesy to acknowledge the email bearing the request.

Poor communication, and lack of candour, by Mr Collins is a recurrent feature of Mr Wilby’s interaction with him, which reflects poorly on the professionalism of that law firm. That is also, it seems, reflected higher up the Weightmans food chain. In an increasingly tetchy interchange with their partner responsible for regulatory matters, James Holman, the firm refused to tell Mr Wilby, even when pressed on the subject, whether Mr Collins faced sanction internally over his conduct. In those circumstances, the working hypothesis has to be that there is nothing of this nature in the offing.

Mr Holman also insisted that having to be nudged for a response over a complaint of this seriousness did not constitute discourtesy. Mr Wilby has, sensibly, agreed to disagree with him.

Weightmans have, however, pledged to co-operate with the SRA’s investigation into the conduct of Mr Collins.

Freedom of information requests were made necessary to establish how much is being spent on defending these claims, by the police and the PCC, via their big city lawyers. Full details of both of these requests can be read here and here. The information requests also sought to establish which senior NYP and NYPCC officers are giving instructions to Mr Collins. Which, in itself, was expected to be revelatory. No information has been forthcoming. The original requests were the subject of an internal review prior to the matter being referred as a complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

Some weeks ago, in an effort to resolve matters, Mr Wilby suggested that the total sum sought, in both of his claims, for his loss of earnings and disbursements (the grand total of £385), be donated to a charity of the Chief Constable’s choice. That, so far, has proved unacceptable to the profligate Chief, and his Commissioner, as a means of settling the matter.

There is also an issue with the form of words concerning the declaration of the court, sought by Mr Wilby, to the effect that the police and the PCC have both acted unlawfully, and the future remedy for such conduct. The fact that both the police and the PCC have continued to routinely break the law SINCE court proceedings were issued only serves to exacerbate the issue.

Interestingly, a complaint made by Mr Wilby in July, 2015 concerning Mrs Mulligan’s failure to hold the Chief Constable to account over Freedom of Information Act failings was NOT upheld by the Police and Crime Scrutiny Panel for North Yorkshire (PCP).

Between April 2012 and June 2015, NYP’s Civil Disclosure Unit failed to determine 1,558 (One thousand five hundred and fifty eight) freedom of information requests within the statutory 20 working day period. These figures, although known at the time by Mrs Mulligan, were not disclosed to the PCP in her formal response to Mr Wilby’s complaint. That matter will be re-addressed at the conclusion of the present court proceedings. Alongside a complaint from another journalist, Nigel Ward, who has an unfinalised information request dating back to 22nd February, 2015. Yes, 2015.

Mrs Mulligan now also has the unenviable record of a 100% failure rate over compliance in finalising data access requests. Over the past three years, there have also been a staggering 103 non-compliant data access requests finalised by the force. That might be a tough one for the PCP to find a workaround, when that fact is put to them formally about their ‘open and transparent’ PCC.

At a hearing on Monday 10th October, 2016, in  Huddersfield County Court, applications by the two policing chiefs to (i) transfer the claims to Leeds County Court before HHJ Gosnell (ii) strike out the claims or, (iii) alternatively, grant summary judgement in their favour were all dismissed.

The district judge found that there was a case to answer on the alleged breach by the chief contsable; an admission of breach by the police commissioner. It was also a finding that the matters concerning the information requests fell away, as their had been no formal application to allow in amended particulars, filed and served on 1st September, 2016, that went beyond the police chiefs’ defence grounded in S56 of the Freedom of Information Act. The judge did make the point that it was open to Mr Wilby to make a new claim against either police chief (or both), grounded in breach of duty, negligence and discrimination, rather than a breach of the Act per se.

The present claims against both the Chief Constable and the Police Commissioner were listed as back-to-back final hearings on the following morning before the same judge. They were represented by junior barrister, Sophie Mitchell, of St Paul’s Chambers in Leeds.

As on the previous day, Ms Mitchell did not distinguish herself. At the applications hearing she had attempted to hand a 16 page skeleton argument over to both the judge, and Mr Wilby, six minutes before the hearing. It was not accepted by either.

At the substantive hearings, Ms Mitchell produced a thick volume of legal authorities, of approximately 200 un-numbered pages, as the hearing was about to start. Whilst that was not, in itself, fatal to the administration of justice, the very late service – and unsatisfactory composition – of the trial bundle was. It had not reached the judge having only been despatched from Weightmans late on the previous Friday afternoon.

Mr Wilby was able to retrieve two sizeable lever arch files from his neighbour’s house (to where they had been delivered by the postal service on Saturday afternoon) at 7.30pm the previous evening. It is unclear when Ms Mitchell received her copy of the trial bundle but she claimed, to the astonishment of most of those present in the courtroom, that she hadn’t read it. In particular, Mr Wilby’s witness evidence around which the whole trial centred. At that point, the judge allowed a short adjournment for Ms Mitchell to read up on the case.

When court resumed, Ms Mitchell attempted to cross examine Mr Wilby over materials upon which the defence relied, but were not exhibited in the trial bundle. It was clear that proceedings could not continue in this fashion. The judge, accordingly, stood both of the cases down and made Orders for case management and re-listing.

The performance of both Mr Collins, in terms of the preparation for the trial and Ms Mitchell in how she prepared and advocated for her clients, both fell some way short of the professional standards that courts and litigation opponents can rightly expect. On this subject the last word goes to well known York-based governance adviser, Gwen Swinburn, who attended the adjourned final hearings:

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The Chief Constable, Mrs Mulligan and Mr Collins have all been approached for specific comment on this article. None of the three even had the courtesy to acknowledge the email carrying the request.

Mr Holman was also approached and his views have been taken into account when detailing the interaction with him, concerning the complaint against Mr Collins. He has asked Mr Wilby not to contact him further.

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Page last updated Thursday 13th October, 2016 at 1435hrs

© Neil Wilby 2015-2016. Unauthorised use or reproduction of the material contained in this article, without permission from the author, is strictly prohibited. Extracts from and links to the article (or blog) may be used, provided that credit is given to Neil Wilby, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Author: Neil Wilby

Former Johnston Press area managing director. Justice campaigner. Freelance investigative journalist.

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