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Apple, treasured memories and the photographs that will last forever

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Matt Himsworth talks about helping Rachel Thompson to overcome Apple’s strict protocols and to obtain the court order which helped her to recover precious photographs and videos for her grieving daughter

As a solicitor, it is often difficult not to become emotionally attached to your client’s issues. There is one matter though that stands out. It’s the only matter I have taken on in which I have openly wept whilst taking a client’s evidence and relates to my client Rachel Thompson.

The case has been well-reported since the Times took up Rachel’s story on Saturday gone. Rachel lost her husband Matthew tragically and unexpectedly in 2015. They had, at that time, a daughter, Matilda, aged 6. Rachel and Matthew had been sweethearts since they were teenagers, they had grown together and they were bound together by a powerful love for their young daughter.

Matthew was a keen photographer and gadget fan. Like many of us, his iPhone was never far from his side. Rachel, a highly successful London property agent, was less inclined to take photographs and relied only on her work Blackberry. Family photos were taken by Matthew, very often on his iPhone, and many of the family’s most treasured memories were stored on his iCloud.

Matthew died suddenly and unexpectedly. The impact of his death will last forever and has had an enormous effect on Rachel and particularly Matilda. Rachel speaks articulately about the moment she had to break the news to her little girl that she would never see her father again. She has kind words for her daughter’s school and also for those who have helped them both in their recovery, particularly the charity Winston’s Wish, who specialise in supporting children who have lost a parent.

Rachel inherited Matthew’s estate and was the sole executor and beneficiary. Transferring over his assets and responsibilities was something she took relatively in her stride and allowed her to focus in a time of tragedy. It helped that the process had been relatively straightforward. That was until the moment she walked into the Apple Store in the Westfield Shopping Centre London to seek guidance on how to recover Matthew’s Apple Account and the treasured family photographs and videos that were kept there.

Matthew’s iPhone had had a login code and also thumbprint recognition. Matthew had in fact set up the iPhone so that Matilda’s thumbprint could open the device. Matilda and Rachel tried this once the iPhone was returned to them, however, once an iPhone has been completely shut down or drained of battery the device then requires the login code before access is given. Rachel had assumed that, along with all of his other property, Apple would grant her access to the intellectual property on his Smartphone. She was, sadly, wrong.

The Apple Store pointed her to Apple, Ireland. Apple, Ireland asked her to obtain and send a Grant of Probate. She did. Apple, Ireland then told her they would need a court order. Both Rachel, and later our firm, pointed out to Apple that a Grant of Probate is a court order but the company insisted.

Matthew Thompson with his daughterThe photographs and videos on Matthew’s Apple account are of more value to Rachel and Matilda than any of his shares or assets. Videos of him sledging with Matilda on his lap, laughing and joking whilst watching cartoons and many many family snaps would give such comfort. Many of the techniques Rachel uses with Matilda to aid the grieving process involve remembering Matthew. Matilda holds many of his personal items, keeps a notebook where she and Rachel write memories of him and the two often look to the sky at night to find Matthew’s star shining down on them. Obtaining the photographs and videos was essential.

Telling a member of the public to “obtain a court order” against Apple, Ireland is no mean feat though. The costs involved in a contested application in the High Court relating to data and intellectual property rights using specialist Counsel would be prohibitive to most.

We were introduced to Rachel by a friend of hers known to the firm professionally. It was a case that we were prepared to take on pro bono and one that we were determined to be successful in. Apple, Ireland indicated in correspondence that they would not resist attempts to obtain an order in an ordinary UK county court and would not require us to make contested submissions on data and copyright. And so, fast forward to April 2019 and the Central London County Court. Counsel Felicity McMahon from 5RB (also acting pro bono) appeared on Rachel’s behalf and order was granted (with no one present on behalf of Apple) and on 30 April 2019, Apple produced access to the Apple account.

Having seen many of the photographs and watched some of the touching videos of Matthew and Matilda together (and cried again!) I can be sure that this was an action worth taking.

There are many lessons learned by this whole matter, many of which are detailed in our more formal blog piece. Morbid as it may sound, we should all make arrangements for the event of our untimely death. As a father, I was devastated to think of my wife and children having to go through 3-4 years of trying desperately to recover our treasured memories to help the grieving process. To anyone reading this who has an Apple account (or any other type of social media or picture hosting account with precious memories on it) consider how you might put careful arrangements in place if the worst should happen. And, to anyone who has tragically lost a loved one, don’t give up when you are told to seek a court order. We can’t act pro bono for every person that finds themselves in this awful position but we would be very happy to provide some initial pro bono advice and, if we can help you in your particular circumstances, and keep it to a cost that you can manage, then we will be pleased to help deliver your treasured memories.

If you’d like to make a donation to the Winston’s Wish charity you can do so here.