Letter: Personal effects

January 4, 2002

Laura Spence was reportedly devastated when details of her rejected application to Oxford University were publicised. Similarly, the Keevil family are upset at the effect that publicity surrounding their son's rejection might have on him.

A neglected aspect of the Spence and Keevil debates is the possible effect of the Data Protection Act 1998. The act applies to "personal data", which is information recorded as part of a data controller's filing system, from which a living individual can be identified. The data controller's (university's and probably school's) recorded opinions and intentions about the applicant are included. Under the act, such personal data should not be processed without the consent of the data subject (applicant), or demonstrable necessity, and then only for the specified and lawful purposes for which it was collected. Public discussion of the equity of admissions systems would not be such a "specified and lawful purpose". Applicants have the right to apply to university - and be accepted or rejected - in private.

The position about relatives or friends, who are not relevant "data controllers" within the Data Protection Act, is less clear. Telling a relative or friend that one's application has been rejected is not consent to wide publication of that fact. There might be an actionable breach of confidence involved, but protection from the emerging right of privacy embodied in the Human Rights Act 1998 is probably more symbolic than practical. It would be unusual for an applicant to sue a parent or friend.

Furthermore, parents and friends are not "public authorities" and are thus more difficult to sue using the Human Rights Act than would be a university or school. Nevertheless, this brief rehearsal of legal principles might give some pause to all those who might prefer the newsworthiness of identifiable human interest to more abstract discussion in the public presses.

Max Weaver
Deputy provost
London Guildhall University

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