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Elizabeth I got upset about the problems caused by shoddy wording of legal documents, when she was adjudicating over a dispute over whether “months” should be taken to mean calendar or lunar ones. “There must be no room for ambiguity”, she said. “Ye must say exactly what ye means.”

Many of the 3,000-odd laws passed since New Labour came to power in 1997 have ranged from the bossy to the fussy, from the foolish to the incomprehensible, from the downright silly to the pointlessly obstructive. Among the latter is the Data Protection Act 1998, one of the early masterpieces of His Tonyness and his gaggle of Smart Alec lawyers.

You can no longer simply pop into your local library and ask to see the electoral roll. Deary me, no, we can’t allow that sort of thing. You can have a decko at last year’s version at your council offices, though. After the people you want to contact have moved house, that is.

A story appeared in the papers the other day about the woman who had been prevented from finding out about her 11-year-old daughter’s flute exam results. The family had heard nothing since the exam over a month before. It turned out that the teacher had returned to her East European homeland and the result could only be disclosed to her.

It is when this long list of hilarious situations descends into the realms of the utterly unjust, owing to the clumsy drafting of the statute, as it did when it affected one ex-IFA recently, that we should look at it more seriously.

The ex-IFA, we will call him Bob, received a complaint from an ex-client that he had “missold” a 19-year low-cost endowment to her in 1989. There looked like being a shortfall of a few thousand when the policy matures in August 2008. The firm to which the IFA had sold his business when he retired released the file to him and he entered into correspondence with the ombudsman, stoutly defending himself.

The adjudicator at the Financial Ombudsman Service eventually came to the conclusion that, after considering all the aspect of the case, the complainant had no cause to complain.

However, as is her right, she insisted on the matter being passed upstairs for consideration by the chief ombudsman. That was over a year ago.

Nothing has been heard since but, recalling that the policy was due to mature in a couple of months’ time, the IFA decided, out of curiosity, to ask the issuing office, Friends Provident what the shortfall, if any, was likely to be.

“Sorry,” he was told. “But as we have had no correspondence with you for over a year and you are no longer the servicing agent, we cannot release this information to you.”

Bob turned to his friends, the new IFAs. He told them what had happened, asking them to give the Friends Provident a ring and find out what he wanted to know. It was not important that he should know but Bob is one of those who cannot tolerate being bossed around by silly rules.

Unfortunately, the IFAs had just appointed a new compliance officer, who was one of those who takes the rulebook home with him each night and slides it under his pillow to fall blissfully asleep after engrossing himself in another chapter of its wonders while sipping his cocoa and muttering frequent amens.

“Sorry, can’t do that. You are no longer the servicing agent. We should never have allowed you access to the file in the first place. Data Protection Act 1998,” said the compliance officer.

Undaunted, Bob checked with the Information Commissioner’s Data Protection Act spokeswoman Liz Lealman.

She said: “The act provides the right to individuals to access documents which hold information about them personally, or to their appointed agents.”

“But I’m the bloke who was engaged in most of the correspondence on that file, 19 years ago. Now I’m retired and am being accused of misselling. Do you mean to say that the law prevents me from gathering information about it?”

Yep, he’d got it in one.

The ex-IFA was furious but it seemed he was hamstrung. It did not sound how British law was supposed to work. What if it had been something that would have been of vital importance to Bob’s defence ?

Then the phone rang. It was Peter Timberlake of Friends Provident.

He said: “Just thought I would let you know. You remember how we told you we could not tell you anything about a case where you were no longer the servicing agent?

“Well, we were chatting about how unfair it seemed, and put our lawyers on to the case to get to the truth of it. And guess what. It is a grey area but you are entitled to know what the shortfall is. That should be obvious to any fair-minded person. It is 5,600.”

So now Bob had heard three versions of the effect of the DPA 1998 on his case.

As for grey areas, surely there should not be any.


Crude for thought

We have enjoyed a fantastically profitable run from our “energy” theme in recent months but we have called time on this bet and taken profits.

Engaged tone

As many got their sea legs on board PIMS, I headed for Italy and the EFPA conference, where I was speaking.


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