Can social workers breach your confidentiality?
Social workers have access to highly sensitive personal information, which creates a risk of data breaches. Legal Director Christine Sabino discusses these risks and what steps you can take if your data is breached.
If a social worker breaches confidentiality for any reason, they could be in breach of data protection laws. This could mean that the social worker responsible for the breach, or the social services they work for, could face action from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and anyone affected could pursue a claim for compensation.
There have been many previous examples of social workers in the UK breaching confidentiality, both intentionally and inadvertently, highlighting the potential risks that face members of the public.
If you have any reason to believe that a social worker has breached your confidentiality, or you have concerns that a social services’ data protection practices are not up to scratch, it is important to understand what actions you can take.
In this article, we will explore:
- What is data protection in social work?
- What is the data protection act 2018 guidance for social workers?
- When can social workers break confidentiality?
- What happens if confidentiality in social work is breached?
- How much compensation can you get if social workers breach your confidentiality?
- Can I sue social services for distress?
- Can I sue social services for direct losses?
- What should I do if a social worker has breached my confidentiality?
- How Hayes Connor can help if your confidentiality has been breached by social workers
What is data protection in social work?
The correct storage and use of personal data underpins the main principles of data protection and confidentiality for social workers. It is the responsibility of individual social workers, and the social services they work for, to prevent any unauthorised access to the data and personal information they handle.
What is the Data Protection Act 2018 guidance for social workers?
The Data Protection Act 2018 (which replaced the Data Protection Act 1998) sets out how personal information can be used by public bodies in the UK, as well as any private businesses and organisations. It places a duty of care on anyone who handles personal data in a social care role.
Guidance for social workers data protection typically involves:
- Documents and medical records must be kept up to date
- Physical documents and files should be kept locked and secure at all times
- All electronic records are protected from unauthorised access (e.g. cybercriminals)
- Staff, including social workers, have the necessary training on how to use personal data
- Personal data is correctly disposed of when no longer needed or necessary
- Data is strictly used for its intended purpose
- Staff are kept up to date with latest data legislation
- Staff are able to identify the potential signs of a data breach
- Staff understand that steps that need to be taken to report an issue to the ICO
Failing to follow any of the steps involved in a confidentiality agreement for social workers could potentially lead to a data breach.
When can social workers break confidentiality?
Confidentiality for social workers is very strict. This means that any errors, even if accidental or unintentional, can be considered a breach of confidentiality.
According to UK GDPR, a data breach involves the “accidental or unlawful destruction, loss, alteration, unauthorised disclosure of, or access to, personal data transmitted, stored or otherwise processed.”
Social workers could be a direct or indirect cause of a breach of confidentiality. In either case, they would still be considered responsible and could be subject to a range of punishments.
For example, a breach of confidentiality could be the direct result of a human error, or malicious attempt to share patient information.
By way of contrast, a data breach could also be caused by an unauthorised attack by a third party. While a social worker would not be directly responsible for such an incident, if their data protection policies were not sufficient enough to prevent an attack, the buck will ultimately stop with them.
What happens if confidentiality in social work is breached?
If confidentiality in social work is breached, the social worker responsible, or the social services they work for, will be required to follow a strict set of processes when reporting the matter.
If any individuals have been affected by the breach of confidentiality, this must be promptly communicated. Without any delay, the following details need to be disclosed to any effected parties:
- The contact details of data protection officers who can be contacted
- A description of how confidentiality was breached any consequences
- A description of any measures that have been taken/are being undertaken to address the confidentiality breach and to mitigate further incidents
- Advice on steps that can be taken for individuals to stay protected
It should be noted that any individuals whose confidentiality is breached by a social worker may be in a position to claim compensation.
Can I sue social services for distress?
If social workers breach laws that are in place to protect your confidentiality, this can be an understandably distressing situation. Depending on the circumstances, your personal contact details, financial information and medical records may have been exposed, falling into the wrong hands in the worst-case scenario.
To claim compensation for distress following a social worker confidentiality breach, it needs to be demonstrated that you have experienced anxiety, emotional strain and/or psychological damage as a direct result of the incident.
The emotional impact of a social worker confidentiality breach on your friends and family may also be taken into consideration where appropriate.
Can I sue social services for direct losses?
In some cases, you may also be able to claim compensation if you have experienced direct losses and/or identity theft as a result of a social worker data protection breach.
Anyone who gains unauthorised access to your personal details, including those which are stored by a social worker, may be able to take a range of actions. This includes but is certainly not limited to applying for credit in your name, creating fraudulent bank accounts or accessing any existing accounts you already have in your name.
How much compensation can you get if social workers breach your confidentiality?
The amount of compensation you could receive if a confidentiality agreement for social workers has been breached will largely depend on the individual circumstances of the case, and the type of data that was exposed.
This is also weighed up against the impact that the failure to protect confidentiality in social work has had on your emotional wellbeing, and any other losses that have been experienced (including direct financial losses).
What should I do if a social worker has breached my confidentiality?
If you are the victim of a social workers confidentiality breach, it is important to be aware of the immediate steps you should take to protect yourself as far as possible:
Speak to the ICO
The ICO should be made aware of any data breaches that take place. While social services will be responsible for this, you can also file your own report to aid any investigations that take place.
The ICO cannot award any compensation to victims of data breaches, but the findings of an investigation can be very useful in supporting your claim for breach of social worker confidentiality.
Change your personal details
In these types of scenarios, changing some of your personal details that have been compromised may be a sensible course of action. While this won’t undo any damage which has already been caused, it can go some ways to repairing the psychological damage caused by the breach.
Instruct a data breach solicitor
We understand that knowing where to turn for support in the wake of a social worker confidentiality breach can be difficult.
If you would like to find out more about how to claim compensation for a social worker confidentiality data protection breach, our specialist solicitors can provide the support and guidance you need.
At Hayes Connor, our expert data breach solicitors can meet with you to discuss your situation in detail. We can advise you on whether you are likely to have grounds to make a claim and advise you on the steps that need to be taken next.
How Hayes Connor can help if your confidentiality has been breached by social workers
If you have been informed that a social worker has breached laws relating to your confidentiality, our specialist data breach solicitors may be able to support you in making a claim for compensation.
At Hayes Connor, we have one of the largest teams of data breach specialists in the country. With a wealth of combined experience and expertise in handling data a wide range of data breaches, we are well positioned to support you with the details of your claim and advise you on how the process will work.
We want to make sure that anyone affected by a data breach is able to access the compensation they deserve, while also making the claims process as simple as possible.
To start a claim, you can use our online claim form and we will get back to you shortly to let you know if we believe you have grounds for compensation.
If you would like to speak to a member of our team, please do not hesitate to give us a call on 0330 041 5132.