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High Court shields database state from blame

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Dangerous precedents?

The legal precedent the Ministry of Justice cited was set in 2003 in the case of Quinland v Governor of Swaleside Prison. A man had received jail sentences totalling two years and three months. Some were to be served concurrently and some consecutively. The judge in the case got his sums wrong and the man ended up serving two years six months.

Judges are immune from negligence liability, so once released the man tried to sue the prison governor. His claim was rejected on grounds the governor was discharging his duties as a civil servant.

Before Justice Blair at the Court of Appeal last week, Mr Power argued that the precedent did not apply. "I wasn't suing individuals - I didn't even know who they were," he told The Register.

He also claimed his case and that of the prisoner were not comparable because the CCJ was not larger than it should have been, but should never have been registered in the first place. He also alleged negligence in Southend County Court's apparent failure to alert him to the CCJ, in contrast with the prisoner, who knew the details of his sentence from the outset.

Mr Power also contested the Ministry of Justice's contention that the CCJ was registered by civil servants discharging their duties, arguing that since they made the error they could not have been discharging their duties.

Those arguments were rejected by Mr Justice Blair, who upheld Master Foster's decision.

"I've got no more recourse," Mr Power said. "What chance do I have against the court establishment?"

Cambridge University's Professor Ross Anderson, author of a recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on the Database State, said the judgement fitted with the pattern of more liability being shifted to the individual by the growth and sharing of government databases.

"When these liability shifts occur," he said, "it always tends to be from the more powerful entities in a transaction towards the individual."

He said that as the civil service had "sought to interpose itself in more transactions" as part of an "empire building" strategy, it had also sought to shield itself from the law.

Phil Booth agreed. "This is indeed very worrying, and precisely the sort of situation that the database state and mass data-trafficking tends to exacerbate. I wouldn't say that Mr Power's story is typical, but it starkly illustrates the dangers and shows that bureaucratic cock-ups and foot-dragging are far from a victimless crime," he said.

And, he said, Mr Power may have no comeback against Experian either. "I'm not aware of any successful prosecutions against Experian or the other credit reference agencies for propagating untruths about people, though it seems to happen with alarming frequency."

An HM Courts Service spokesman confirmed it won the case, but declined to comment on the implications of the decision.

It now falls to judges in future cases to interpret Mr Power's loss when damaging mistakes are made in the CRB database, National ID Register, DNA database, ContactPoint, NHS care records... ®

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