New Zealand Law Society - Police right to disclose mental health details says Privacy Commissioner

Police right to disclose mental health details says Privacy Commissioner

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The Office of the Privacy Commissioner says the police were right to disclose mental health information about a woman hospitalised for mental health reasons.

A Case Note released by the Office says that after the woman was discharged, she went to a police station and made a complaint about how the hospital had treated her.  

According to police, when the woman spoke to the constable, she told him that she had been admitted to the hospital for suicidal thoughts, and that she had been discharged while still suicidal.

After speaking with the woman, the constable left the room to phone an emergency mental health team (EMHT). He did not tell the woman he was going to make the call and during his conversation with the EMHT, he relayed that the woman disclosed to him that she had suicidal thoughts. He also described her agitated state and the evidence of self-harm on her arms.

The woman made a complaint to the Office, alleging that he had breached her privacy by telling the EMHT what she had told him.

Exceptions in the Privacy Act 1993

The case note says the key privacy principle in this case is Principle 11 of the Act, which restricts agencies from disclosing people’s personal information unless one of the exceptions applies.

The fact that the constable disclosed the information was not disputed. Rather, police argued that the “serious threat” exception (principle 11(f)(ii)) applied in this case. This is the exception that allows agencies to disclose people’s personal information if doing so is “necessary to prevent or lessen a serious threat to the life or health of the individual concerned.”

When agencies rely on this exception, they must consider:

  • The likelihood of the threat being realised,
  • The severity of the consequences if the threat is realised,
  • The time at which the threat may be realised.

The Commissioner found that the facts of this case met those thresholds, and a reasonable person would be justified in disclosing information in this situation.

“Furthermore, the disclosure must be to a person or an agency who can help prevent the threat in question. An EMHT is the correct agency to disclose information to in these circumstances,” the Office says.

“With all this in mind, we found that police had acted in good faith, with a view to taking steps to reduce a threat to the woman’s safety. We therefore concluded that the woman’s privacy had not been breached. Agencies are able to disclose information when they believe there is a serious threat to someone’s safety.”

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