5Rights welcomes Data Bill changes on access to data for child inquests

5Rights welcomes the Government’s decision to honour its promise that a coroner will be able to access data from tech companies in cases that involve the death of a child.

The Bereaved Families for Online Safety said:

“We are pleased the Government will honour its promise to us.

“As a group of families with our own individual stories, we are reassured that future bereaved families will not have to share in our agonising experience of being stonewalled by tech companies.

“We thank the Secretary of State for continuing to engage with our concerns as we look to work together to make the online world a safer place for all children.”

This finally paves the way for families, whose children may have died due to online harm, to get answers at an inquest. The new power was originally agreed during the passage of the Online Safety Act, but when an accompanying measure was inserted into the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill, the Government had narrowed it so it could only be used where a coroner “suspect[s] that the child may have taken their own life.”  

The Government has removed that condition and the legislation will now apply to all inquests involving children. This will allow coroners to request data through Ofcom, effectively giving them access to the broad range of information powers given as a result of the Online Safety Act. This will transform the experience of bereaved families who have suffered the catastrophic loss of a child.

The inquest into the death of Molly Russell, a 14-year-old from North London, demonstrated the struggle coroners face in accessing information from tech companies. The coroner and Molly’s family’s lawyers fought for five years to access the content she had seen in the months leading to her death, which led the coroner to rule that Molly had died from “an act self-harm whilst suffering from depression and the negative effects of on-line content.”

The Government’s original amendments to the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill tabled in December would have watered-down data-access rights for coroners, by only allowing it for cases where a coroner suspects a child has taken their own life. This would have limited the original intention of this power, leaving out cases where, for example, a child has been murdered. 

In December, 5Rights’ joined the Bereaved Families for Online Safety group, asking the Government to honour assurances already made during the passage of the Online Safety Act. The Act gives provision for a coroners to access data from tech companies where a child has died and there is reasonable suspicion that the information is relevant to their death. 

The amendments were originally brought forward by Baroness Beeban Kidron and backed in the House of Commons by the former Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Sajid Javid MP. They were strongly backed by 5Rights and the NSPCC. 

Commenting, Baroness Beeban Kidron said:

“I am delighted by this decision. The transparency this measure will bring forward will lift a veil on the role of tech companies in cases where children die. It will reveal information that, however painful, is necessary for parents to come to terms with the death of their children. 

“It is also essential for the good working of Parliament that where promises are made at the despatch box they are fulfilled. There is a great deal still to do to make children safe online - but this is one small step forward.”

Commenting, Merry Varney, partner at Leigh Day solicitors and lawyer for the Molly Russell family said:   

“Since the Coroner’s conclusion in the Inquest into the death of Molly Russell, there can be no doubt that online harms can cause the death of a child and where necessary, Coroners investigating the death of a child must have robust tools to obtain relevant data held by tech companies. This decision to honour the promises made to bereaved families who have shared their most painful memories in the hope of protecting others and who themselves had to battle to obtain data from tech companies, is very welcome.”