A quick search of the ICO’s Register of Data Controllers for the word “coroner” reveals just 18 records. This does not compare favourably with the dropdown box on the Coroner Society figure of about 110. Only 32 of these are ‘whole time’ coroners the remainder being paid for each case. Now let’s consider whether coroners need to be registered as data controllers and other key questions that arise.
(1) Do coroners hold data about living individuals?
Yes. It is accepted that information about the deceased is not ‘personal data’ for the purposes of the Data Protection Act but as noted in the registration of Her Majesty’s Coroner for Greater Manchester (North District) coroners hold data about the “RELATIVES, GUARDIANS, PERSONS ASSOCIATED WITH DECEASED”.
(2) Are coroners covered by the data protection registrations of local authorities?
No. In the ICO FOI Decision notice the Commissioner “determined that the tapes are held by the public authority solely on behalf of the Hertfordshire Coroner and not for its own purposes. Coroners are not designated as public authorities under
the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and therefore their records are not subject to the information access regime of this Act.” It goes on to conclude “It holds the information on behalf of another person and that other person, the Hertfordshire Coroner, is not a public authority as defined in the Act”.
It seems therefore very unlikely that the ICO would take the opposite view for Data Protection purposes, so I think it is safe to say that the coroner as an independent judicial officer is also a Data Processor who is not covered by the local authority registration.
If that isn’t enough, in EA/2008/0010:
“the Tribunal concluded that the Coroner had in this case made the decision what was or was not to happen in relation to this information. This was consistent with the statutory regime under the Coroner’s Rules and indicated that ‘ownership’ of and control over this information lay both in fact and law with the Coroner. That this should be the case was consistent with the fact that the Coroner is an independent judicial office holder, whose decisions are made independently of the Council.”
Clearly, the coroner is a data processor.
(3) Are coroners exempt from registering?
No. If you read the ICO’s guidance and bear in mind that coroners are responsible for the administration of justice you will see that no exemption is available.
(4) Why doesn’t the ICO do something?
You would have to ask the ICO that question really, but the ICO’s general approach is not to pro-actively look for potential instances of non-compliance with notification requirements, far from it. In fact, the ICO often does not act when instances of non-compliance are brought to its attention.
Please see information rights and wrongs excellent piece on failure to notify by MPs in which the ICO response is recorded as “Our non notification activities are targeted at particularly high risk or under represented groups or sectors.”
(5) Why does any of this matter?
Firstly, because non-registration is a criminal offence and hardly could conduct for a judicial officer. Secondly, you can choose to buy goods and services from people you trust to process your data lawfully but when it comes to public authorities you usually don’t get a choice and this is true for coroners you might come into contact with in the most tragic of circumstances. Finally, because it again calls into question the ICO’s choice of who to target with enforcement action. I am reminded of Tim Turner’s comment:
“Chris Graham’s speeches are impressive and stirring, with an attitude that no stone will be left unturned, no organisation or sector can act with impunity, but the reality is different. Rather than issuing CMPs [civil monetary penalties] to big private sector organisations, they go after councils. Rather than prosecuting MPs for non-notification, they do estate agents. They have to concentrate scant resources, and the targets that they choose could be exemplars – big, powerful institutions and individuals whose fate would serve as a lesson for all”