Since the introduction of the GDPR in May last year individuals have become much more aware of their rights to access their personal data. It is therefore extremely important that you have a clear action plan in place to process SARs within the short statutory timescale and to avoid fines or censure. Below we look at the SAR requirements, the practical impact of them, and some top tips for ensuring you get it right.

The requirements

The relevant legislation is found in Article 15, GDPR, which sets out the “Right of Access by the Data Subject”. 

“The data subject shall have the right to obtain from the controller confirmation as to whether or not personal data concerning him or her are being processed, and, where that is the case, access to the personal data and the following information:

  1. The purpose of the processing
  2. The categories of personal data concerned
  3. The recipients or categories of recipient to whom the personal data have been or will be disclosed, in particular recipients in third countries or international organisations
  4. The envisaged period for which the personal data will be stored, or if not possible the criteria used to determine that period
  5. The existence of the right to request from the controller rectification of erasure of personal data or restriction of processing of the personal data concerning the data subject or to object to such processing
  6. The right to complain to the ICO
  7. Where the personal are not collected from the data subject, any available information as to their source;
  8. The existence of automated decision-making, including profiling”

Art 15.3 -The Controller shall provide a copy of the personal data undergoing processing. 

Click here for the  ICO guidance on Subject Access Requests. 

Can I extend the statutory time period for response?

Only if the request appears complex, or the data subject has made several requests.  If so, you can extend the time for response to two months but you must notify the data subject if you intend to do this and be able to justify doing so (you may have to explain this if the data subject complain to the ICO).

As a rule you will need to replay to the vast majority of requests within one month.

What are data subjects entitled to? 

Data subjects are entitled to obtain the following from you:

  • confirmation you are processing their personal data;
  • a copy of their personal data; and
  • other supplementary information listed in Article 15 (largely covered by your privacy notice).    

Personal data (as defined in the GDPR) will typically be name, address, telephone number, email address, and other data which will be determined by the type of services being provided by you (e.g. national insurance numbers etc).  You may also be processing special category data like medical data, criminal records and convictions data. 

The ICO has published useful guidance to help businesses determine what personal data they hold. 

Do I have to send a full copy of everything on the file?

No, providing a copy of the personal data does not mean that you have to copy the entire file – just the actual personal data. 

What if the data includes information on other individuals?

The DPA 2018 says that you do not have to comply with the request if it would mean disclosing information about another individual who can be identified from that information, except if:

  • the other individual has consented to the disclosure; or
  • it is reasonable to comply with the request without that individual's consent.

In determining whether it is reasonable to disclose the information and what should be withheld (e.g. redacted), you must take into account all of the relevant circumstances, including:

  • any duty of confidentiality you owe to the other individual;
  • any steps you have taken to seek consent from the other individual;
  • whether the other individual is capable of giving consent; and
  • any express refusal of consent by the other individual.

If the other individual consents to the information being released then it would unreasonable not to do so. 

Can we refuse a request?

Yes, in very limited circumstances and you must be able to show justification for doing so.  You can refuse to comply with a request if it is 'manifestly unfounded or excessive', taking into account whether the request is repetitive in nature.  In such cases you can request a "reasonable fee", to be paid before dealing with the request (based on the cost of processing the request); or refuse to deal with the request.  If you charge a fee you should notify the individual promptly


The DPA 2018 contains a number of exemptions to the obligation to disclose, the most relevant are likely to be legal professional privilege and where a duty of confidentiality is owed to clients.    Other notable exemptions include references given in confidence, personal data processed for the purposes of management  forecasting or planning and negotiations between employer and employee. 

Click here for further information on exemptions. 

What should we do if we refuse to comply with a request?

Inform the individual without undue delay and within one month of receipt of the request.  Tell them about:                             

  • the reasons why you are not taking action;
  • their right to make a complaint to the ICO or another supervisory authority; and
  • their ability to seek to enforce this right through a judicial remedy.

You should also provide this information if you request a reasonable fee or need additional information to identify the individual.

What if the client is deceased?

Data relating to deceased individuals is not personal data and is not subject to the requirements of the GDPR.  You may, however, receive requests for information from others (such as relatives or executors of an estate).  You will need to verify the identity of the individual requesting the data and the basis of the request before releasing information.

How do I have to send the response?

If requested electronically then you can respond electronically unless a specific format has been requested by the data subject.  Be mindful of security – send encrypted/password protected wherever possible – anything being sent by post should be sent by traceable delivery method.

Remind Employees To Take Care

It is really important to remind your employees that anything they record in writing, or an email or case note may potentially be disclosable under a SAR.  The general rule should be that you should not write down anything you would not want an individual to see.

The Response

Your final response letter must contain the following:

  • All of the information set out in Article 15.1.  Much of this information will be contained in your privacy notice.  You can refer to your privacy notice in the letter or attach a copy.  Details of the source of the data if you didn't collect it directly from the data subject.
  • Details of any information you have not included and the reason why.
  • A statement that the data subject can contact the ICO if they are not satisfied.

What if the Data Subject complains to the ICO regarding a SAR?

There may be occasions where an individual complains to the ICO, so you should always be ready to justify any decisions made.  If an individual complains, you will receive an email from ICO caseworker detailing the complaint  and asking you to comment.  Typically you will be given 14 days to respond.  Your response should include:

  • A description of the personal data that you have disclosed (e.g. 72 emails and documents and 17 call recordings).
  • The date of the response and the method you used to send it.
  • Details of any data not disclosed and the reason why you (e.g. use of an exemption or as it contains personal data belonging to another individual).
  • Answers to any specific questions.


  2. Have a clear policy for dealing with SARs.  Draft a precedent response letter.
  3. Know where you hold personal data.  Check everything including email systems, case management system, paper files.  Remember: generally the data subject will know what they are looking for.  Don't forget telephone call recordings (if you record calls).
  4. Check information before disclosing to make sure it doesn't contain the personal data of another data subject.
  5. Ensure relevant staff: (i) can recognise a SAR and (ii) all staff know that anything they write in emails/correspondence/file notes is potentially disclosable.
  6. Consider exemptions to disclosure.
  7. Keep a central record of all SARs and how they are dealt with/any issues arising.