The Data Protection Act 1988 supersedes the 1987 Access to Records Act. This means that you now have a right to access your records even if they precede 1987. First of all, it is worth pointing out that this Act is based on eight principles. These are that data must be:

  • Processed fairly and lawfully
  • Obtained only for specified and lawful purposes
  • Adequate, relevant and not excessive
  • Accurate and, where necessary, kept up to date
  • Kept for no longer than necessary
  • Processed in accordance with the rights of data subjects under the Act
  • Safeguarded against unauthorised or unlawful processing and against accidental destruction or damage
  • Retained wholly within the European Economic Area, unless there are adequate protections in the receiving country

Old Records

Files written before 24th of October 1998 are exempt from the first five principles of the Act and in addition to the above the courts do not have the power to order rectification, erasure, etc.

Rights of access

  • Under the DPA, any living person who is the subject of personal information held or processed by a social work agency has the right of access to that data.
  • Information should be provided within 40 days of the request for disclosure. Where access is refused, a Data Subject may appeal to the Courts or the Data Protection Commissioner
  • A person does not have the right to know what is recorded about someone else. So, for example, one family member is not entitled to see the record of another member without their agreement. This rule can be challenged if the data also relates to that person. The agency should also provide as much information as is possible without revealing the identity of the third person.
  • Where information includes details of another person the agency needs to consider obtaining permission from that person before disclosure. If this action is taken the authority has 40 days from the point of the written request to seek consent. If consent is denied, the agency can decide to provide the information but may be required to justify its actions
  • Where the third party cannot be identified the agency must provide the information.
  • The Data Protection Act applies only to data about living persons
  • The Act states that a request for access has to be made in writing.
  • The information provided must be communicated in an intelligible way with a permanent copy.
  • There are provisions (Statutory Instrument 2000/415) that data held for social work purposes may be withheld if disclosure would be likely to cause serious harm to the physical or mental health or condition of the subject of the record or another person. This may not apply to adults seeking access to their childhood information.

Apologies for the legalistic language, but there isn’t a better way of putting these things without making them inaccurate or vague. I hope this information is useful to you in trying to access your own files. Good luck!