In trying to resolve a privacy dispute or complaint, the Privacy Commissioner has the power to make people attend a compulsory conference. This is a little known feature of the Privacy Act and it has been perhaps underutilised in the 21 years that the Act has been around.
But that will be changing with a new impetus to use these meetings to make a restorative difference.
People complain about a range of issues. Maybe a person has had their request for information about them rejected or ignored by an agency or organisation that holds that information. Or maybe a person discovers that someone within an organisation has been inappropriately accessing their information.
There are a number of tools that our investigators can use to achieve a solution that can satisfy both parties. Compulsory conferences, as the term suggests, means both parties have no choice but to attend an arranged meeting. Section 76 of the Privacy Act says:
The Commissioner may call a conference of the parties to a complaint by –
(a) posting to each of them a notice requesting their attendance at a time and place specified; or
(b) such other means as is agreed to by the parties concerned.
The objectives of the conference shall be –
(a) to identify the matters in issue between the parties; and
(b) to try and obtain agreement between the parties on the resolution of those matters.
Where a person fails to comply with a request to attend a conference, the Commissioner may issue a summons requiring the person to attend another conference at a time and place to be specified.
In a recent example, a person complained that information held about them by a business had been accessed in an unauthorised and inappropriate way. For that person, getting a resolution depended on them gaining a full understanding how the breach happened and what was being done to stop it happening again.
The business had provided that information to us and it had been relayed to the complainant. But the complainant wanted a personal assurance from the business and also to ask some further questions.
The business, which was based in another centre, would have to pay to attend the meeting. In this instance, we saw good reason to use our powers to compel the business to attend, while reassuring its representatives that the complainant was also being made to attend and would be there on the day.
The compulsory conference was successful. The complainant was able to meet the business representatives face to face and get the assurance they wanted. The complaint was resolved by the end of the meeting.
You will see us use more compulsory conferences to solve complaints. The law gives us the power to call them and, as the above example demonstrates, it is another avenue of justice that can give complainants greater influence in the complaints process.