Privacy breach at Disputes Tribunal

A sensitive case file that was misplaced at a Night 'n Day convenience store left a woman “understandably upset” after it was sent to the man she was locked in a dispute with.

Details of the privacy breach were revealed in a briefing to Justice Minister Andrew Little, released under the Official Information Act.

In March, a referee from the Disputes Tribunal left an active civil case file that included the confidential address details of one of the parties in the store.

It was found by a staff member who sent it to a man who was the second party in the case and whose address was also in the file.

The man then emailed the case officer and said he had the file, but refused to return it after being asked. He again refused after being asked a second time to do so.

This left the ministry unsure of how to proceed and it went to its legal counsel for advice on how to recover the file including the possibility of laying theft charges.

In the briefing, the ministry noted that the loss of the court file was not a privacy matter as the Privacy Act did not apply to legal proceedings, but it would contact the Privacy Commissioner “as a matter of courtesy”.

This proved to be a wise move, with Principal Disputes Referee Anne Darroch telling Newsroom that the Privacy Commissioner contacted the man who then returned the file.

“I regret any distress this may have caused and have reminded all referees of the need to ensure case files are transported securely.”

The loss of the file caused concern within the ministry that the man would try to contact the woman involved now that he had her address.

Police were told and an alert was entered into the notification system should there be any contact through 111 about the address of the woman.

“The woman who had the confidential address included in the file was understandably upset that the file had been lost.

“However, she indicated that she doubted the man would make contact with her. Nevertheless, the Manager Justice Service provided his cell phone number and invited her to call should she have any questions or fears for her safety.”

The ministry also noted that it could relocate the woman if she wanted.

Little said the case was particularly sensitive so he was concerned when told about the mistake.

“I understand the file now has been returned but I’m deeply disappointed that a person had their sense of safety threatened and compromised as a result.”

Clear instructions to all officials on how to carry documents in a secure way had been issued, he said.

The Disputes Tribunal is overseen by the Ministry of Justice but is less formal than court, with parties representing themselves and appearing before a referee rather than a judge.

It can settle disputes up to $15,000, or $20,000 if both parties agree.

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