The Office of the Privacy Commissioner has upheld a complaint against a law firm by a long-term client who had requested access to his information and was told it would cost $19,000.
In a case note, the Office says a belated response to the request from the law firm informed the client that he would be charged $19,000 to uplift his files.
The client said the files were necessary for unrelated legal proceedings.
The case note says the unnamed law firm breached Principle 6 of the Privacy Act 1993 as it failed to comply with the request by not providing that information within 20 days (s40).
Principle 6 provides that where personal information is held in a way that it can readily be retrieved, the individual concerned is entitled to obtain confirmation of whether the information is held; and have access to that information.
The $19,000 charge
While s35 of the Privacy Act permits charging for the provision of information, it limits what actions may be charged for and requires the charge to be reasonable.
The OPC said that it would normally refer to Ministry of Justice charging guidelines – “but these are not determinative and the total cost should be assessed for reasonableness.”
The law firm said that it calculated the cost using the charging guidelines (95,877 pages at 20c per page, plus labour costs). The client said he would be happy to pay for a USB stick and have the information in a digital form only – however, in response to this solution, the law firm said they would not change the charge.
On closing the file, the OPC informed the law firm that their preliminary view was that the law firm had breached the client’s privacy by failing to respond to the information request in time.
The Privacy Commissioner then exercised the discretion provided in s78 of the Privacy Act and set the charge at the reasonable cost of purchasing an 8GB USB stick - at $7.99 from Warehouse Stationery.
This was a final and binding decision.
The case note says the law firm refused to back down. The Office closed the file and advised the client that he had a right to take the case to the Human Rights Review Tribunal. The client then filed proceedings with the Tribunal.
Once the law firm was informed that the matter was before the Tribunal, two boxes of files were promptly delivered to the client who then had them copied and returned to the firm’s office.