R v. Brown 1996

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Analyse how the House of Lords interpreted the word “use” in 5(2)(b) of the Data Interpretation Act 1984 in the case of R v Brown (1996) 1 ALL ER 545 Introduction The case of R v Brown, 1996, concerned two uses of a police force Computer by an officer, for the purpose of obtaining registration numbers of cars owned by the debtors of a collection company that was run by a friend of the officer. The police officer was a registered data user[1] and as such, he was prohibited under the Data Protection Act 1984 to ‘hold personal data’[2]. The charge was for the criminal offence[3] under s 5(2)(b) of the1984 Act, which stated that: “A person in respect of whom such an entry (an entry pertaining to the identity of registered data user) is contained in the registrar shall not…(b) hold any such data, or use any such data held by him, for any purpose other than the purpose or purpose descried in the entry…” In the original trial, the judge directed to jury to consider that the act of simple retrieval from the computer, coupled with the intention of utilizing the information for a purpose that had not been registered was enough to satisfy a conviction. The Court of Appeal[4] rejected the initial convictions of attempt on the first count, and full commission of the crime on the second count. It was held that the term, “use” when interpreted with sole reference to its ordinary, everyday meaning, required that the offence could only be committed when more than mere retrieval of data had been done. It was therefore necessary to “do something to the data…” which meant that the case was decided entirely on the appropriate answer to the legal question, which was: “Whether the word ‘use’ in section 5 of the Data Protection Act 1984 should be construed so as to include processing the data so as to gain access to information stored within a computer without doing any further act with the information…” This paper analyses the decision reached by the House of Lords with regard to the interpretation of the word ‘use’. An account of both the decision of the court, as espoused by Lord Goff of Chieveley and Lord Hoffman and the dissenting ratio decidendi, as stated by Lord Griffith is given 1.The decision of the court (a)Lord Goff of Chieveley Lord Goff followed the line of reasoning of the Court of Appeal and stated that: “…since the word, ‘use’ is not defined in the Act, it must be given its natural and ordinary meaning. Synonyms of the verb ‘use’ are ‘to make use of’ or to ‘employ for a purpose’.[5]” He then analysed the context of the word in relation to the specific item that was purported to have been used by ascertaining the sort of activities that would be regarded as ‘use’ of ‘data’. He ascertained from this analysis that the act of retrieval therefore did not constitute ‘use’ of the computer information but was a mere prerequisite[6] to that use.

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