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Court refuses 192.com access to full electoral register

An attempt by the company behind 192.com to widen access to the full electoral register has been rejected by the English High Court. I-CD Publishing (UK) Ltd, which now operates a telephone directory service on 118 119, has now to rely on access to that part of the electoral register where voters choose to put their name and address in the public domain.02 Sep 2003

I-CD was making a claim for judicial review of the regulations which provided voters with that choice.

Prior to the regulations, the electoral register used to be available for purchase by any person (e.g. direct marketers) in its entirety, but following complaints and legal action, commercial access to the electoral register was restricted to those cases where each voter concerned had given permission.

However, the law also permitted a number of circumstances where organisations can access the register without the need such permission - for example, law enforcement agencies and credit reference agencies can request copies of the full register.

That is why Electoral Registrars now compile two registers: an edited register which contains details about those individuals who wish their details to be in the public domain and a register which is complete - the "full register".

Two companies – Experian and Equifax – have long dominated the credit reference sector. More recently, they have been joined by a third, Call Credit. These companies provide sophisticated and relatively expensive credit reference services which are based on a number of sources, including the full register.

By contrast, i-CD provides a more limited and less expensive service which combines electoral data with details from telephone directories and business credit reports under the brand 192.com.

The power of the 192.com search has provoked controversy because access to such data can permit tracing - and not everyone wants to be found – it includes numbers of those who thought they were ex-directory and allows powerful reverse-searching that other services do not permit.

192.com's database is made available on CD-ROM (called UK Info Disk) or on the internet and now by telephone, via number 118 119. The phone service is one of about 20 competing in the market vacated by BT's 192 service last month, each using a six-digit number beginning 118.

I-CD's barrister described its business as "a low-cost identity–verification service, particularly for businesses which wish to carry out basic credit-vetting without utilising the more extensive and more costly services of the big credit reference agencies". This is different to Experian, Equifax and Call Credit, as I-CD does not include information about any county court judgments against prospective borrowers.

Since i-CD was providing similar credit referencing services to the larger credit referencing companies, it was arguing that it should be able to have access to the full electoral register.

However, when the government consulted on the regulations which mooted access to the full register by established credit reference agencies, i-CD claimed that it had no reasonable opportunity to put its case for access.

Hence the first argument for judicial review related to the process which excluded i-CD from making its case that the company should have been granted access to the full register.

Secondly, although I-CD is registered as a credit reference agency by the Office of Fair Trading, the failure to have access to the full register prevented the company from developing its business - and this too was unreasonable.

In rejecting the first claim, Justice Morris Kay stated that although i-CD was not specifically approached by government, "there is no doubt that i-CD could have made representations at any time after 7th December 2001" (i.e. the company had plenty of time to make representations), and that given the company's commercial interest in access to the Electoral Register "I find it barely credible" that the company was unaware of what government were intending to do.

However, at a previous hearing the High Court Judge observed that it was strange that a Government consultation took place with the industry, yet everyone who was invited was excepted from this legislation - while those that were refused entry, such as i-CD, were not excepted.

I-CD also claimed that the new legislation was irrational. Alastair Crawford, CEO of 192.com, told OUT-LAW.COM:

"It effectively means that one can check your identity if I 'might' lend you 10p, but not if you have been charged with looking after my baby. The court rejected that, but I fear that will be the great cost to people in the future, such as was in the case of Suzi Lamplugh. People often need to check identities of people and often in cases where the credit is not always financial in nature."

In relation to the second claim, which effectively amounted to a request for Court Order which would permit i-CD access to the full register, the Judge stated that legal precedents required i-CD to demonstrate that a "truly exceptional case" existed.

Such cases were "not limited to life and death issues" and could be perhaps be a "matter of constitutional importance" - however, the case presented by I-CD did not "come anywhere near being the sort of truly or very exceptional case" which could allow an Order to be made.

The court acknowledged that the new legislation did not create a monopoly and that i-CD had every right to access the full electoral roll should it wish to begin the business of being a credit reference agency. But the company's application for judicial review was dismissed.

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