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Widow wins legal battle to access family photos taken by late husband

A widow has fought a lengthy, expensive but ultimately successful legal battle with Apple to access family photos taken by her late husband on his iPhone.

Under UK law, friends and relatives of a person who has died have no automatic legal right to access information held in the deceased's online accounts. 

Rachel Thompson, was separated from her husband when he took his own life in July 2015. He had taken thousands of photos and videos of their daughter using an iPhone. After her husband died the phone battery shut down and Ms Thompson didn’t have the passcode necessary to access it.

Ms Thompson was told that she would need to obtain a Grant of Probate in order to close the account, a process which took six months to complete. Apple then requested a court order to retrieve the images, as accounts are non-transferrable.

Following a three year process, the Central London County Court recently awarded Ms Thompson access to her husband's images, and Judge Jan Luba, who presided over the case, called for a change in the law to make it simpler for people to access digital data that belonged to relatives who have died. 

This has added to the debate over whether companies should owe a 'digital duty of care' to grieving families as, increasingly, people store photos in cloud-based accounts and on social media rather than keeping hard copies. 

In 2015, Facebook introduced the right to appoint a ‘legacy contact’, allowing a trustee limited powers to administer aspects of a person’s account after their death. However, some service providers completely prohibit third party access and effectively terminate the user agreement on death.

Currently, it appears, the best way to guarantee that digital assets remain accessible to loved ones is by taking practical steps and making specific provision in a Will.