SAFETY RISK JUSTIFIES WITHHOLDING OF ANIMAL EXPERIMENT INFORMATION

April 21st, 2010 by Robin Hopkins

The ‘health and safety’ exemption under s. 38 FOIA has received relatively little attention at Tribunal level. It was recently relied upon successfully in People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Europe (PETA) v IC & Oxford University (EA/2009/0076).

Experiments performed on a macaque by an Oxford University Professor had been featured in a BBC documentary in November 2006. The appellant pressure group sought extracts from the relevant project licence concerning, for example, the work plan and purposes behind those experiments. The Tribunal applied the well-established ‘prejudice’ principles from Hogan and Oxford City Council v IC (EA2005/0026 and EA2005/0030), ‘endanger’ (the term used in s. 38) being synonymous with ‘prejudice’. It found that s. 38 was engaged, given the indiscriminate nature of the violence tending to accompany the publication of information about animal experiments at Oxford.

In terms of the public interest test, notable points from the decision include:

a) PETA argued that the information would assist its decisions on applications for judicial review, but, based on Secretary of State for the Home Department v BUAV [2008] EWCA Civ 417, the Tribunal observed that there was limited scope for judicial second-guessing of scientists’ opinions.

b) The Tribunal accepted that limited external scrutiny was available, but was persuaded of the robustness of the internal scrutiny and oversight mechanisms applied here.

c) Oxford put forward a collateral public interest argument, namely that safety risks would deter future research, thereby impeding the advancement of scientific knowledge and human health. PETA argued that this was too remote from the health and safety risks for which s. 38 catered, but the Tribunal rejected this ‘remoteness’ objection (though it found this public interest factor to be inapplicable on these facts).

Given the frequency with which such points arise in appeals by pressure groups, these observations from the PETA case may come to have wider application.

LATE RELIANCE ON EXEMPTIONS ONLY TO BE ALLOWED IN “EXCEPTIONAL” CIRCUMSTANCES

April 6th, 2010 by Robin Hopkins

The Tribunal’s recent decision in Crown Prosecution Service v IC EA/2009/0077 concerned a request for information about the CPS’ deliberations on s. 58 of the Children Act 2004, which restricted the availability of the “reasonable punishment” defence to what would otherwise be a criminal assault by an adult on a child. The importance of this decision lies not so much in the fate of the requested information (in short: some was exempt, some was to be disclosed), but in the Tribunal’s approach to late reliance on FOIA exemptions.

The CPS initially relied on s. 35(1)(a) (formulation and development of government policy). Then, in its appeal to the Tribunal, it invoked s. 35(1)(b) (ministerial communications) and s. 42 (legal professional privilege). Finally, the CPS raised s. 40 (2) (personal data) for the first time during the Tribunal proceedings. The Tribunal allowed late reliance on ss. 40(2) and 42, but not s. 35(1)(b).

In so doing, it applied the principles set out in the Tribunal’s decision in Home Office & Ministry of Justice v IC EA/2008/0062. The crux of that decision was that late reliance should only be allowed in “exceptional” circumstances. The Home Office approach was not disapproved in the appeal to the High Court from that Tribunal decision ([2009] EWHC 1611 (Admin)) – but nor was it formally approved. The CPS decision, which was complete with detailed reasoning in support of Home Office, seems to have resolved lingering questions about the Tribunal’s approach to late reliance.

The Tribunal in CPS also considered whether the IC is under a duty to consider exemptions that are not raised by the public authority. Here it followed the approach from Bowbrick v. Nottingham City Council EA/2005/0006: in “exceptional” cases, the IC is “entitled” to look for an appropriate exemption. This did not extend to s. 42 in Bowbrick, nor did it in CPS.