In Martin v Data Protection Commissioner  IEHC 479, Mr Martin sought to challenge the Data Protection Commissioner’s (DPC) refusal to investigate disputed facts of his data protection complaint via an oral hearing. The High Court held that the DPC was not empowered to hold an oral hearing under the Data Protection Directive 95/46/EC or the Data Protection Acts 1988 and 2003 (the Acts), even where there is a conflict of evidence. Furthermore, the requirements of natural and constitutional justice do not confer an inherent power on the DPC to do so.
The decision confirms that it cannot be inferred from the Acts, which impose on the DPC a duty to investigate and make a decision in relation to a complaint, that the DPC has the power to conduct an oral hearing. Individuals do, however, have a right to appeal a decision of the DPC to the Circuit Court where an oral hearing can take place.
In 2012, Mr Martin complained to the DPC alleging that his data protection rights had been breached, and asking that the DPC to conduct an investigation. The alleged breach was in relation to a loan account that Mr Martin had with St. Raphael’s Credit Union. Mr Martin claimed that a representative of the Credit Union visited the home of his father, and allegedly disclosed confidential financial information about Mr Martin’s outstanding loans.
The Credit Union denied such verbal disclosure occurred. The office of the DPC wrote to Mr Martin stating that it was not possible to form a definitive opinion on a complaint that concerns an allegation of verbal disclosure with one party stating one thing and the other party another. Mr Martin subsequently requested an oral hearing in order to investigate his complaint. In response, the DPC stated that there is no provision or obligation in section 10(1)(a) or section 24 of the Acts which provides for the holding of an oral hearing in respect of the investigation of complaints submitted to the DPC.
Justice Haughton, at the High Court, ruled that neither the Data Protection Directive 95/46/EC, nor the Acts give the DPC the power to hold an oral hearing of a complaint. Justice Haughton highlighted that “the Oireachtas had seen fit to promulgate the very detailed provisions regarding the holding of oral hearings in other legislative frameworks“, such as in the Central Bank Act 1942, the Medical Practitioners Act 2007, and the Pharmacy Act 2007. He noted that these are all examples of the kind of legislative provisions that may reasonably be expected to feature in modern legislation if the Oireachtas intends that an administrative body is to have the power to hold effective oral hearings, and which are absent in the present case.
The Court held that in the absence of an express power, the court should be slow to find that there was an inherent power to hold an oral hearing. Judge Haughton held that the power to hold an oral hearing is a significant one and could not be said to be incidental to the powers of investigation conferred on the DPC and her staff by the Acts. He held that Mr Martin could have appealed the DPC’s decision to the Circuit Court, joining the Credit Union as a notice party, and that this would have been a process affording him an oral hearing. He concluded that Mr Martin’s claims for reliefs were rendered moot by the issuance of a formal statutory decision by the DPC, that the decision had been made within jurisdiction, and that he was not entitled to an oral hearing.