Couple awarded £17,000 damages for distress caused by neighbour's CCTV surveillance

22 February 2017

The compensation is an example of the rise of "distress" claims as a result of breaches of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA).

The complaint was raised in the Scottish courts by a couple who lived in a flat above a guesthouse, whose owner installed CCTV and audio recording equipment to their shared building.  The CCTV was set to record 24 hours a day (storing 5 days' worth of data at any time) and could be accessed remotely.

From 2013, the CCTV cameras were set up to cover the couple's private property (including the entrance to their flat and their garden).  The owner's husband taunted the couple, saying he could listen to private conversations in their garden.  The couple feared that private conversations within their flat were being recorded, leading to feelings of anger, stress and frustration.

The court found that the guesthouse owner, as the data controller, had breached several of the data protection principles under the DPA.  In giving his judgment, Sheriff Ross found the data processing to be intrusive, excessive, unjustified and "an effort to oppress".

Sheriff Ross referred to the 2015 Court of Appeal case Google v Vidal-Hall, which established a right to compensation for distress only for breaches of the DPA.  Before the 2015 ruling, compensation was only available in circumstances where some financial loss had been suffered.

There is no statutory guidance as to compensation for distress claims under the DPA, so Sheriff Ross accepted the couple's calculation of damages.  This was based on a sum of £10 per day for each of them, multiplied by the number of days the data processing had taken place in breach of the DPA.  One month of days was deducted to account for when the couple were likely to be absent from the property (eg on holiday).

It will be interesting to see whether this method of calculating damages by reference to a daily figure will be followed in future cases elsewhere in the UK, or whether a lump sum approach will be favoured by claimants and/or the courts.  In any event, this decision sets down a marker for future "distress" claims relating to breaches of the DPA and provides an example of how to quantify damages for such claims.  

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