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

April 26th, 2011

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.

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