Requests for public domain information

This section of the story is very involved and complicated but I have added it for completeness sake and because some may find it interesting as it concerns freedom of information, public domain data and issues of open justice.

When someone is sued and a court decides they owe money a judgment is entered against them and this is kept in a register. Historically the register which was established in 1852, was contained in a book and was available to the public for inspection. County Court judgments are supposed to be in the public domain and freely available to the public.

I had wanted to consult the register for details of people who had judgments against them so that I could contact them and let them know that they could reclaim these unlawful charges. The average amount of the charge is £1,500. However, the register of county court judgments is now maintained by a company called Registry Trust who administer the register under contract with the Ministry of Justice. They operate a website, Trust Online, on which members of the public can look up who has a judgment against them if they know the name and address of defendant.  However, Registry Trust’s main source of business is selling judgment details to credit reference agencies, which in turn are used by the banks to check on people’s creditworthiness. The credit reference agencies purchase thousands of records a month.

Registry Trust have maintained in my dealings with them that the existence  of the register of judgments is for credit reference purposes. However, I would strongly refute this. It was established in 1852 long before credit generally became available in the 1950s, and I maintain that it is simply a register of public information, like the electoral roll.

I wanted to purchase records from Registry Trust. However, the register is maintained under the Register of Judgments Orders and Fines Regulations 2005 and those regulations stipulate the methods by which one can search the register. The relevant parts of the regulations are here.

The regulations set out how you can search and then states “or with the agreement of the Registrar, against such other criteria as may be requested”. The Registrar is the CEO of Registry Trust.

When a firm of solicitors issues multiple claim forms they can join the bulk issue section of Northampton County Court. When they do so they are allocated a code which is entered in the claim number to identify the solicitors. I deduced that the code for Restons, for example, is XO, so a claim number may appear like this – 9XO4587, where 9 is the year of issue and XO is Restons. All of the HFC claims are issued out of Northampton County Court. I made a Freedom of Information request to the Ministry of Justice for this data, without any expectation of success, but in the letter of refusalthey did disclose that there were some 70,000 records for the 4 year period I had requested.

I asked Registry Trust to supply me with judgment details of all claim numbers which contain XO, in order that I could contact the defendants. They refused to supply this information, stating variously that it was not “a valid request” (I don’t know what this means) and that claim numbers are not in the public domain. Here is a copy of their draft contact which they issue to people like me who wish to buy data in bulk.

It can be seen that in their own contract they define claim (case) numbers as public domain information. They are public domain information and are otherwise freely available in county court lists, on property title documents obtainable from HM Land Registry, where a charging order has been registered against a property, and elsewhere.

I believe the real reason Registry Trust refused me access to the data was because the Ministry of Justice had told them to. After my initial request they did tell me that they would consult further. In fact Registry Trust appeared to want to help – they said there was no technical difficulty in filtering the results to supply what I had requested. They having consulted with the MoJ I was refused access. Here is an extract from a statement made to  court by Jon Hale the Registrar, where he confirms that he consulted the MoJ.

I believe that his discretion was fettered by the MoJ. I had told Registry Trust that the purpose of my search was to investigate unlawful practice by two firms of solicitors.

The regulations state that if you have been refused access to the register you can appeal in the county court. This seemed to me a bit drastic when I had simply wanted access to data that should be in the public domain. I therefore contacted Amber Rudd, my local MP, who in turn wrote to Registry Trust and the Justice Minister.

When the regulations were drafted an Explanatory Memorandum was published which states that the registrar is given discretion so as to deter “credit repair” companies, who targeted people with judgments and encouraged them to apply to set the judgments aside so that the judgments are removed from the record and further credit can be obtained.

I believe that the MoJ decided that my purpose in obtaining the data was similar – certainly I believe that they thought my project might clog the courts with thousands of applications to challenge the judgments. In actual fact I had intended filing complaints with the Financial Ombudsman Service and would not have troubled the courts.

Since I had been refused access to the register and  the purpose of my request did not infringe data protection principles or any other legislation, I appealed in the county court, reasonably confident that if I did not win my appeal I would not have to pay Registry Trust’s costs because they had never given me a satisfactory reason for their refusal.