Estonia: Error in JustMin's document register exposes legal aid personal data

  • 2020-07-28
  • BNS/TBT Staff

TALLINN - The information of over 1,000 people who had received state-funded legal aid accidentally became public in the document register of the Estonian Ministry of Justice, public broadcaster ERR reports. 

Along with names, the purpose for seeking legal aid was also visible in the documents, such as divorce, custody of children, alimony or personal bankruptcy. The document remained available online in the register for close to a month.

An example reported by ERR's English-language news portal stated that "Mari" [name changed], who works as a hairdresser in Tartu, has two small children, had a consultation with a lawyer in June. "Divorce" is listed as a term next to Mari's name.

The document in the register was compiled by a private law firm Hugo, which has been providing its services for four years. The company monthly submits its activity report to the Ministry of Justice for the purpose of receiving payment.

The firm's report for June accidentally became public along with over 2,000 instances when legal advice had been provided to over 1,000 people.

Erki Pisuke, member of the board of Hugo OU, told ERR that the Ministry of Justice monitors satisfaction with the service his company provides.

"I think when it comes to state support, it's understandable that there are some checks over public money. The documents you refer to have simply entered that [public] database due to human error, and have now been removed from it," he said, according to ERR News.

Whether or not such a dataset can even be maintained is a separate issue. Pursuant to the law, legal professionals have the obligation to maintain the confidentiality of the information they have learned in the course of providing a legal service as well as the customer's reason for seeking advice and the fee paid for it.

Pisuke said that the said rules do not apply to the services provided by Hugo.

"These responsibilities are for lawyers. Hugo lawyers are not advocates, they are not members of the bar association, so this principle does not apply directly here. But of course, lawyers also fulfill this requirement in their reality. All information entrusted to them is stored according to the same requirements," he said, according to ERR News.

"The Ministry of Justice regrets that reports that are used for carrying out supervision over the quality and relevance of a service provided at the expense of state budget resources have become public in our document register along with personal information," Kertu Laadoga, public relations adviser at the Ministry of Justice, said.

Laadoga added that the ministry had restricted access to the documents immediately after being informed of the issue by ERR and began investigating the circumstances of what may prove a possible violation.