SUPREME COURT JUDGMENT ON THE INVESTIGATORY POWERS TRIBUNAL

December 11th, 2009 by Anya Proops

This week the Supreme Court handed down an important judgment on the jurisdictional scope of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT): R (on the application of A) v B [2009] UKSC 12. The case involved a former spy, ‘A’, who wished to publish a manuscript relating to the successes, failures and recruiting techniques of MI5. MI5 had refused to authorise the publication of certain elements of the manuscript under the Official Secrets Act 1989. A subsequently brought a claim for judicial review in the administrative court challenging MI5’s decision. The claim was advanced in particular on the basis that MI5’s refusal breached A‘s right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights. The claim was resisted on the basis that, under s. 65 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), it was the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) which had exclusive jurisdiction to hear any challenge made against MI5’s decision, irrespective of whether or not that challenge was made under the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA). A’s claim for judicial review was allowed at first instance. In summary, Collins J held that the High Court exercised jurisdiction in respect of the claim in parallel with the IPT ([2008] 4 All ER 511). Collins J’s judgment was subsequently overturned by a majority of the Court of Appeal ([2009] 3 WLR 717). The Supreme Court has now unanimously upheld the Court of Appeal’s majority judgment. In essence, the Supreme Court held that:

 

  • the wording of s. 65 RIPA should be construed broadly so as to ensure that, where decisions of this nature were in issue, they should be heard by the IPT, even if they embraced challenges brought under the HRA;

 

  • the fact that s. 65 operated to oust the jurisdiction which the ordinary courts would otherwise have to hear a human rights challenge was not objectionable on constitutional grounds (i.e. it did not constitute an unlawful ouster). In particular, the ouster of jurisdiction embodied in s. 65 was lawful because: (a) it had been provided for in clear terms under the relevant legislation; and (b) it did not operate to prevent judicial scrutiny of the particular decision but instead merely ensured that that scrutiny was conducted by the IPT;

 

  • the mere fact that the IPT procedures were more secretive than those which would apply in the ordinary courts did not mean that there would be any breach of A’s right to a fair trial under Article 6 ECHR. The use of such procedures could be justified in view of the fact that determination of A’s claim would entail consideration of information which raised issues of national security. (It was noted in the judgment that an application to the ECtHR is currently pending on the question of whether certain of the IPT rules breach various articles of the Convention, including articles 6, 8 and 10).

 

The judgment is likely to be seen as controversial in certain quarters, not least because the secretive nature of the IPT process is regarded by many as being inherently unjust. 11KBW’s Jason Coppel appeared on behalf of B before the Supreme Court.  See further my post on the recent application of the IPT process to a surveillance procedure applied by a local authority.

JACK STRAW EXERCISES MINISTERIAL VETO (AGAIN)

December 11th, 2009 by Anya Proops

In February of this year, Justice Secretary Jack Straw issued the first ministerial veto under s. 53 FOIA. The veto, which met with considerable public controversy at the time, was issued in response to an Information Tribunal decision which required disclosure of minutes of a Cabinet meeting at which the government decided to go to war in Iraq (see further my paper on this issue). Yesterday, Mr Straw announced that he was exercising his powers of veto for a second time. The new veto has been issued in respect of a decision of the Commissioner requiring disclosure of minutes of the Cabinet Ministerial Committee on devolution to Scotland and Wales and the English Regions 1997. In the public announcement of the veto, Mr Straw stated that disclosure of the information in issue would have put the convention of collective cabinet responsibility at ‘serious risk of harm’. He also stated that he considered the circumstances of the case to be exceptional. Notably, similar points had been used to justify the veto in respect of the Iraq minutes. See further the certificate and Mr Straw’s Statement of Reasons and Veto. The effect of the veto is that the appeal against the Commissioner’s decision, which was due to be heard by the Information Tribunal at the end of January 2010, will now be aborted as the effect of the veto is that the decision notice ceases to have effect. The Commissioner has today issued a statement in response to the veto. The statement expresses regret and concern that the veto was issued in circumstances where the Tribunal had yet to adjudicate on the Cabinet Office’s appeal (cf. the Iraq minutes case where the veto was issued subsequent to the tribunal’s decision). The Commissioner will in due course issue a report to Parliament on the matter.

The Open University? Application of FOIA to University Course Materials

December 11th, 2009 by Anya Proops

The question of whether and to what extent FOIA can be used as a device to open up public access to educational resources is obviously an important one for our society. It is a question which was very recently considered in the case of University of Lancashire v IC (EA/2009/0034). In that case, the Tribunal was called upon to decide whether a university (UCLAN) had acted unlawfully in refusing a request made under FOIA for disclosure of course materials relating to a BSc degree course in homeopathy. The request had been refused initially on the basis that disclosure of the course materials would damage UCLAN’s commercial interests (application of s. 43 FOIA). Subsequently, when the matter came before the Commissioner, UCLAN also argued that it was entitled to refuse disclosure because of the risks disclosure would pose to the effective conduct of its affairs (application of s. 36 FOIA). The Commissioner held that UCLAN had erred in refusing to disclose the course materials, save that he accepted that certain elements of the course materials, and particularly empirical case studies, could be withheld under s. 41 FOIA (the confidential information exemption). UCLAN appealed the Commissioner’s decision to the Tribunal.

The Tribunal dismissed UCLAN’s appeal. In summary, it held that:

·       with respect to the application of s. 43 FOIA (the commercial interests exemption):

o      despite being a charitable institution, UCLAN did have ‘commercial interests’ and those commercial interests were engaged in respect of teaching materials produced for its degree courses (§31);

o      however, it could not be said that, at the time of the request (July 2006), there was any real and significant risk that disclosure of the homeopathy course materials would prejudice UCLAN’s commercial interestsand accordingly s. 43 was not engaged (§§32-39);

o      in any event, had s. 43 been engaged, the public interest balance under s. 2 FOIA would have weighed firmly in favour of disclosure (§§40-50).

·       with respect to the application of s. 36 FOIA (the public affairs exemption), the exemption was not engaged because the opinion of the qualified person relied on for the purposes of this section was neither reasonable in substance nor reasonably arrived at (§§52-62).

The following aspects of the Tribunal’s decision are particularly worthy of note:

·       in line with the earlier Student Loans case, the Tribunal took a broad approach to the concept of ‘commercial interests’ for the purposes of s. 43. It readily accepted that universities could have commercial interests in the courses which they ran;

·       UCLAN argued before the tribunal that the course materials were exempt from disclosure not least having regard to the facts that: (a) they contained a significant amount of third party copyrighted information and (b) disclosure of that copyrighted information under FOIA would disincline third parties from contributing to course materials in the future. The tribunal rejected these arguments. It did so on the basis that: (1) disclosure of information under FOIA would not in any way have diluted any copyright enjoyed by the third parties and (2) there was in any event no sufficient evidence before the tribunal to substantiate UCLAN’s case that disclosure of the copyrighted material would have had an alienating effect on third party contributors.

·        the Tribunal highlighted the degree of rigour which must be applied when the relevant qualified person is seeking to formulate an opinion which engages s. 36. It also highlighted that the public authority must itself provide evidence that the person who reached the relevant opinion was a ‘qualified person’ for the purposes of s. 36 (§53);

·       on the question of the public interest test, the Tribunal found that there were strong public interests in disclosure. Those interests included both: (1) a general public interest in members of the public being able to test the educational value of publicly funded degree courses and (2) a specific public interest in accessing information relating to a homeopathy degree course which was by its very nature inherently controversial.

The parties were represented by 11KBW’s Tim Pitt-Payne (counsel for UCLAN) and Anya Proops (counsel for the Commissioner).