EXTRAORDINARY RENDITION UPPER TRIBUNAL APPEAL: LATE RELIANCE, PERSONAL DATA & OTHER ISSUES

April 26th, 2011 by Robin Hopkins

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition (APG) requested information from the Ministry of Defence on (i) memoranda of understanding between the UK and the governments of Iraq, Afghanistan and the USA regarding the treatment of prisoners detained in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, (ii) a copy of the Detentions Practices Review, (iii) a copy of the UK’s policy on capture and joint transfer, and (iv) statistics on detainees held in Iraq and Afghanistan. The MOD refused the requests, relying on a number of exemptions under FOIA. For the most part, the Commissioner agreed. APG’s appeal was expedited to the Upper Tribunal and heard by Blake J, Andrew Bartlett QC and Rosalind Tatam.

Except as regards request (iii), its appeal has succeeded, to a limited but substantial extent. The Upper Tribunal has ordered disclosure or significantly more information than that ordered by the Commissioner.

Its judgment (available here) is complex. Some of the key points of interest are as follows.

Late reliance

The Upper Tribunal was mindful of the decision of a differently constituted Upper Tribunal in the DEFRA/Brikett appeals, where it was held that public authorities may rely on exemptions as of right at any stage in proceedings. In this case, the Upper Tribunal did not need to decide the issue of late reliance, but it did confess to having “some general concerns” about such an approach, which threatens to “turn the time limit provisions of ss. 10 and 17 almost into dead letters”, and “can also create a strong sense of injustice”. The internal review mechanism provides sufficient time for the public authority to make its mind up; if new points are taken thereafter, “then fairness requires that the requester should be allowed to add to the terms of his complaint under s. 50(1)”.

Cost of compliance under s. 12 FOIA

The Upper Tribunal approved principles from Urmenyi v IC and LB Sutton (EA/2006/0093) concerning the Commissioner’s enquiries into the assumptions behind the public authority’s estimate, and from Roberts v IC (EA/2008/0050) about the activities falling within s. 12 and the reasonableness of estimates.

Late reliance on s. 12 is a different matter to late reliance on exemptions under Part II of FOIA. Delay by a public authority robs the requester of the opportunity to split the request into parts separated by 60 days, thereby avoiding s. 12. The cost exemption “only has meaning if the point is taken early on in the process, before substantial costs are incurred” – it looks at whether costs would exceed, not whether they have been exceeded.

In the present case, the MOD’s estimate was not reasonable because it was based upon a search for a broader class of information than that which was actually requested.

Prejudice to international relations under s. 27 FOIA

The Upper Tribunal was not persuaded that this exemption was effective: “since the maintenance of the rule of law and protection of fundamental rights is known to be a core value of the government of the United Kingdom, it is difficult to see how any responsible government with whom we have friendly relations could take offence at open disclosure of the terms of an agreement or similar practical arrangements to ensure that the law is upheld”.

Legal professional privilege under s. 42 FOIA

This exemption was engaged, and the public interest in favour of disclosure of the UK’s Detention Practices Review did not outweigh the public interest in maintaining the exemption.

Bodies dealing with security matters under s. 23 FOIA

The MOD successfully relied on this exemption – including where it was relied on “late”.

Personal data under s. 40 FOIA and the conditions in Schedule 2 DPA

Information on the dates and locations of individual cases of detention and prisoner transfer would not enable identification of those individuals, and was thus not personal data. If it had been personal data, condition 6(1) from Schedule 2 DPA would have been met.

APG in fact submitted that conditions 4, 5(a), 5(d) and 6(1) would be met by disclosure of statistics on detainees. The MOD submitted that a number of these conditions could not be relied on in the context of a request under FOIA because the public at large (to whom disclosure under FOIA is deemed to be made) cannot fulfil these conditions. The Upper Tribunal disagreed: at least some of these conditions can be fulfilled by a member of the public, and that is sufficient.

APG further relied on s. 35(2) DPA, which provides an exemption from the non-disclosure provisions of the DPA where disclosure is “necessary for the purposes of establishing, exercising or defending legal rights”. The Upper Tribunal confirmed that “establishing” for these purposes had the sense of “vindicating” rather than merely determining what the relevant rights are.

Where data is anonymised, it continues to attract the protection of the data protection principles insofar as it is in the hands of the data controller (who holds the key to identification of the otherwise anonymous data subjects). “But outside the hands of the data controller, the information is no longer personal data, because no individual can be identified… the best analysis is that disclosure of fully anonymised information is not a breach of the [DPA] because at the moment of disclosure the information loses its character as personal data”. The publication of truly anonymised or other “plain vanilla” data therefore does not involve “processing of personal data” for DPA purposes.

Related judgments

On the late reliance issue, permission to appeal to the Court of Appeal is being sought in the DEFRA/Birkett case.

On the s. 40 FOIA issue, the Upper Tribunal’s decision needs to be read in conjunction with the High Court’s decision (also handed down very recently) in the Department of Health’s “abortion statistics” appeal.

TWO HIGH COURT ‘PERSONAL DATA’ JUDGMENTS: DIGITAL ECONOMY ACT 2010 AND ABORTION STATISTICS

April 20th, 2011 by Robin Hopkins

The High Court has today handed down two judgments of some significance in the context of personal data.

This morning, Kenneth Parker J gave judgment in the application brought by BT and TalkTalk for judicial review of the Digital Economy Act 2010 (on which, see my earlier discussion here). The Act seeks to combat illegal file-sharing by allowing copyright owners to detect apparently unlawful online activity and report it to the suspect’s internet service provider, who must then warn the suspect against repeat infringements. The claimants contended, among other things, that this regime breached EU data protection law. Their claim failed on this and three other grounds, succeeding only with their fifth ground, which contended that internet service providers should not have to foot 25% of the bill for the regime imposed by the Act. Read the DCMS’ press release here.

This afternoon, Cranston J gave judgment in the “abortion statistics” appeal (on which, see my earlier Panopticon post here). The Information Tribunal had upheld the Commissioner’s decision to order disclosure of “low cell count” statistics as to the number of abortions carried out on specified grounds. Argument had focused on the risk of doctors, and in particular patients being identified. The Department of Health’s appeal to the High Court was dismissed. The judgment represents a notable development in jurisprudence on personal data.

More analysis to follow when these judgments are made available.

PUBLIC LAW REASONABLENESS NOT A MATTER FOR THE COMMISSIONER OR TRIBUNAL

April 17th, 2011 by Robin Hopkins

The absolute exemption at s. 44 FOIA applies where the disclosure of the requested information is prohibited under any enactment. Many statutes contain such prohibitions, often subject to specified exceptions or tests. If a public authority applies that statutory regime incorrectly or in a “Wednesbury unreasonable” way – that is, if it acts unlawfully in a public law sense  – then the precondition for reliance on s. 44 FOIA falls away.

This question arises: does FOIA presume “procedural inclusivity” (i.e. the Commissioner and/or tribunal have jurisdiction to consider such public law questions) or “procedural exclusivity” (i.e. public law is a matter for the courts only; requesters must thus seek judicial review)?

In Morrissey v IC and Ofcom (EA/2009/0067), the first-tier tribunal followed the approach taken in Hoyte v Civil Aviation Authority (EA/2007/0101) in supporting inclusivity. In other words, it considered that the Commissioner and tribunal do have jurisdiction to conduct “reasonableness reviews”.

In Morrissey, the tribunal asked itself whether Ofcom had acted reasonably in withholding information under s. 44 FOIA in reliance on s. 393(2)(a) of the Communications Act 2003. Its answer was ‘yes’. Ofcom nonetheless appealed, on the grounds that “reasonableness reviews” are beyond the statutory powers of the Commissioner and tribunal.

The Upper Tribunal has agreed with Ofcom, and endorsed procedural exclusivity: see GIA/605/2010. (Its decision was not concerned with the ultimate outcome of the case – which concerned a request for information about Ofcom’s approach to equal opportunities – but simply with this point of principle).

Its reasoning was as follows. Disparate caselaw illustrates a presumption that lower courts and tribunals can resolve public law prerequisites to their “core business” – but caselaw does not show any presumption that regulators can do so. Under FOIA, the tribunal’s jurisdiction is parasitic upon that of the regulator, the Commissioner. The Commissioner’s jurisdiction is to decide whether a request “has been dealt with in accordance with the requirements of Part I [of FOIA]” (s. 50(1) FOIA). (The tribunal’s jurisdiction is governed by s. 58 FOIA: this says it must determine whether the decision notice was “in accordance with the law” – rather than “Part I of FOIA”. It does not appear that the Upper Tribunal considered anything to turn on this difference).

As to the construction of the particular provision in question, the Upper Tribunal found that the purpose of s. 393 of the Communications Act 2003 is to reassure commercial broadcasters that Ofcom can only lawfully disclose their information if it considers it right to do so for one of the purposes in s. 393(2).

The Upper Tribunal was clear as to the broader implications of its decision: “it must be for the public authority initially to determine whether the information requested is exempt “by virtue of” s. 44” (paragraph 54).

It concluded, however, that judicial review is not the only alternative in these circumstances: the first-tier tribunal may not have jurisdiction over such public law points, but the Upper Tribunal does – provided it has the blessing of the administrative court in any given case.

DCLG CONSULTING ON STATUTORY CODE FOR LOCAL AUTHORITY DATA TRANSPARENCY

April 16th, 2011 by Robin Hopkins

Pursuant to the Government’s transparency drive, the Department for Communities and Local Government has begun consulting on its proposed statutory code of recommended practice for local authorities on data transparency, which is intended to complement FOIA and the EIR. The draft code aims in particular to assist the public in understanding local authorities’ decisions on funding voluntary organisations. The Government proposes to make the publication of expenditure above £500 mandatory, and to publish salary data by reference to salary thresholds (publish if above £58,200), but will consider whether other reference points (such as job title or function) would be more suitable. It also seeks views (in accordance with its “demand-led” ethos) on particular types of data set which local authorities should be required to publish. Click here to read the consultation paper, and for details of how to respond.

TRIBUNAL ORDERS DISCLOSURE OF POLICING CAMERA LOCATIONS

April 16th, 2011 by Robin Hopkins

Those interested in information law in the context of policing will wish to note the very recent Tribunal decision in Mathieson v IC and Devon and Cornwall Constabulary (EA/2010/0174).

Automated Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras are strategic policing tools used by a number of forces.  Mr Mathieson asked Devon and Cornwall Constabulary to provide him with the locations of its ANPR cameras. It refused, relying on the prejudice-based qualified exemptions at s. 31(1)(a) (prevention or detection of crime) and s. 31(1)(b) (apprehension or prosecution of offenders). The Commissioner considered that the public interest arguments – though finely balanced – favoured the maintenance of these exemptions.

The Tribunal agreed that these exemptions were engaged, but disagreed on the public interest, and ordered disclosure.  It considered that the Commissioner had overlooked a number of relevant factors.

First, this is a privacy issue: ANPR cameras capture vast amounts of personal data; there is therefore substantial public interest in scrutiny of their use (further illustrated by parliamentary questions on the subject). Secondly, location data alone would not undermine policing – information on factors such as policing tactics, data and analytical capabilities were equally necessary.

Furthermore, the Constabulary had put forward weak arguments: the Tribunal was unimpressed by its attempt to rely on reports by other police forces on their use of ANPR cameras, and by its focus on issues such as the potential for vandalism – which is not sufficiently connected to the interests protected by ss. 31(1)(a) and (b).

NEW COURT OF APPEAL JUDGMENT ON DISCLOSURE OF PAST CONVICTIONS

April 15th, 2011 by Robin Hopkins

The Court of Appeal has today given judgment in H and L v A City Council [2011] EWCA Civ 403. This is an important decision on Article 8 ECHR in the context of the disclosure of information on past convictions.

The case involved a seriously disabled man, H, and his partner L, who was also seriously disabled. They were active in the disability movement, both as campaigners and in running a company that provided consulting services on disability issues to public authorities. They employed personal assistants in their home, paid for with funds from the local authority. H had been convicted of a serious sexual offence against a child in 1993. His home local authority was aware of this, but took no action until 2009, when it was contacted by a second local authority where H ran a disability charity. It transpired that H had been committed for trial on another charge of an offence against a child, though he was subsequently acquitted. It also came to light that H had a previous conviction for failing to disclose his unspent convictions, and that he was being referred to the Independent Safeguarding Authority.

H’s local authority reacted by convening a number of strategy meetings involving the relevant professionals, without informing H. It decided to begin paying H and L’s care assistants directly (for audit trail reasons) rather than by payments to H and L themselves. As regards disclosure, it took three decisions: (i) it disclosed to 9 organisations with which H was involved an outline of its concerns and of all the facts giving rise to those concerns, (ii) it told H and L that it reserved the right in future to contact any other organizations or persons and express these same concerns if it felt the need arose, (iii) it informed the personal assistants of its concerns and the underlying facts.

H and L brought judicial review and Article 8 proceedings. At first instance (see the Panopticon post here), HHJ Langan QC found for the local authority on the lawfulness of disclosures (i) and (ii), but against it on disclosure (iii). He also found that the new payment regime imposed by the local authority was unlawful.

The Court of Appeal found that all of the disclosure decisions were unlawful: the crucial factor was that none of H’s current involvements brought him into contact with children. Therefore, the local authority’s blanket approach to all 9 organisations was unfair and disproportionate. Its decisions had also been procedurally unfair, in that H had not been allowed to make any representations. The new payment regime was motivated by the disclosure decisions, and therefore also unlawful.