Brenda Long and Emma Baillie, Solicitors, Blandy and Blandy, Reading. Eight solicitors have been prosecuted in the last 12 months for failing to notify under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA). Magistrates handed down a record fine in March 2005 following the successful prosecution of a Rochdale solicitor by the Information Commissioner. This is one of the high profile areas of data protection regulation of which many solicitors, and certainly partners, will be aware. However, family practitioners would be well advised to consider the offence of breach of s 55 of the DPA which has received far less publicity, but which carries similar penalties. Under s 55, an offence is committed when a person knowingly or recklessly obtains or discloses personal data, or the information contained within such data, or procures the disclosure of such information to another person without the consent of the data controller. There is some evidence that the Information Commissioner is taking a harder line in such cases and there have been a number of prosecutions in the last year.
The section is likely to be of most relevance to solicitors in circumstances where an enquiry agent is instructed to obtain information in relation to a third party, for example within ancillary relief proceedings or for the purposes of enforcement. Section 55 was primarily aimed at enquiry agents who specialised in obtaining personal information about others, at reporters pretending to be someone else in order to obtain personal information and also at employees obtaining information without the consent of their employer. However, there is evidence that the Information Commissioner is extending the application to solicitors who have received information in possible contravention of the section during the course of litigation. See October  Fam Law 887 for the full article.