UPPER TRIBUNAL DECISION IN NEWCASTLE UNIVERSITY V IC & BUAV: MEANING OF “HELD”, APPLICATION OF S. 44 FOIA

May 25th, 2011 by Robin Hopkins

The Upper Tribunal has published its decision in the case of University of Newcastle upon Tyne v Information Commissioner and BUAV [2011] UKUT 185 (AAC). The case concerned requests by BUAV (the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection) for information on licenses for animal experimentation issued under the Animal (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 (ASPA). The University’s response was that it did not hold the requested information (rather, the information was held by individual researchers) and that, even if it did, the exemption under s. 44 FOIA applied, in that disclosure otherwise than under FOIA would involve the University committing an offence under s. 24 ASPA. The Tribunal disagreed, and found against the University on both points. The University’s appeal to the Upper Tribunal has failed on both points.

On the question of whether the University “held” the information for the purposes of s. 3(2) FOIA, the UT found that the present case was a straightforward application of the rules of attribution of knowledge to a corporate body. Reliance on the cases of McBride and Digby-Cameron did not assist the University: in both cases, the crucial issue was whether the information was held by the public authority “otherwise than on behalf of another person”, whereas the present case concerned the meaning of “hold”.

The UT’s analysis of the meaning of “holds” will have broad application to FOIA requests. UT Judge Wikeley approved the following passage from the Tribunal’s decision as a correct statement of the law:

“The effect of this subsection [s. 3(2) FOIA] is to confirm the inclusion of information within the scope of FOIA s1 which might otherwise have been arguably outside it. The effect of paragraph (a) is that information held by the authority on behalf of another is outside s.1 only if it is held solely on behalf of the other: if the information is held to any extent on behalf of the authority itself, the authority ‘holds’ it within the meaning of the Act. The effect of paragraph (b) is that the authority ‘holds’ information in the relevant sense even when physically someone else holds it on the authority’s behalf.”

The test is not whether the public authority “controls” or “possesses” or “owns” the information in question; simply whether it “holds” it. “Hold” is an ordinary English word and is not used in some technical sense in FOIA; it should not be re-defined or replaced, as to do so would risk distorting its ordinary meaning. The UT’s interpretation of “hold” means that, in general, public authorities should base their cases for refusal on exemptions rather than on arguments about whether they “held” the information for s. 3(2) purposes. See these statements from UT Judge Wikeley:

“A key feature of the FOIA regime is the need to balance the interests of the requester and the public interest in the free flow of information with the legitimate interests of public authorities and third parties.  Moreover, that balance is struck not by over-complicating the simple factual concept of whether information is “held” by a public authority – rather, it is achieved by the matrix of absolute and qualified exemptions and the application, where appropriate, of the public interest test.”

and

“I am reasonably confident that if the ordinary officious commuter on the Tyne & Wear Metro were presented with the scenario in the present case, their response would be along the lines of: “Has the University got the information BUAV requested? Of course it has. But presumably there may be some defences it can use so it doesn’t have to disclose some or all of it?””

Turning to s. 44(1)(a) FOIA, the UT noted the wording of the exemption and emphasised these words “if its disclosure (otherwise than under this Act) by the public authority holding it … is prohibited by or under any enactment”. It analysed s. 24(1) ASPA and asked itself whether the University (as opposed to any individuals) would not be committing an offence under that section if it disclosed this information otherwise than under FOIA. Its answer was no. The University therefore cannot rely on s. 44 in these circumstances, and will have to consider other exemptions if it wishes to withhold the information.

Robin Hopkins

“ENVIRONMENTAL INFORMATION” INCLUDES NAMES OF OFFICIALS DRAWING UP MONUMENTS POLICY

May 25th, 2011 by Robin Hopkins

Omagh DC v IC (EA/2010/0163) is the newest decision on the scope of “environmental information” under the EIR. It is notable both for the broad interpretation it gives to the “landscape” element of that definition, and for the relevance the Tribunal ascribed to the purpose of the request.

The case concerned a memorial on Council-owned land commemorating IRA members who died during the hunger strikes of 1981. The Council undertook an Equality Impact Assessment on its policy on “Disposal of Land for the Purpose of Erecting or Retaining a Memorial or Monument”. The requester sought the names, departments and job titles of those Council officials responsible for that Assessment, as well as the Council’s letter to the Equality Commission.

The issue for the Tribunal was whether this should have been dealt with under FOIA or the EIR. The Council argued that the applicant’s queries were not about the environment, but about a process being used to inform a consultation on a Council decision. The Commissioner contended that the requested information was “environmental information” within the meaning of reg. 2(1)(c) EIR because the assessment was a “measure which is likely to affect the land and landscape”, and that details of those officials responsible for drafting the policy were not so far removed from this “measure” as not to have an effect on it.

The Tribunal has agreed with the Commissioner. It accepted that the Assessment could be fairly described as an investigative step prior to a potentially controversial final decision affecting or protecting the landscape, and also that the scope for “visual as opposed to cultural impact is capable of being regarded as minor” in this case. Nonetheless, it observed that under reg. 2(1)(i), the test is not only whether a measure affects or is likely to affect one of the listed elements but also whether a measure is “designed to protect” those elements; therefore, whether a change is likely is not determinative. The title of the Assessment implied a possible outcome preserving the status quo. The Tribunal was clear that:

“Only the connection with an impact on land or landscape links the concerns in this case into environmental rights. Had the memorial in question been inside a public building, the landscape context would have been absent but the cultural concerns would not have been different”.

Interestingly, although it recognised the “motive blind” principle, the Tribunal took the view that motive could be relevant not to the decision on whether or not to disclose the information (with which the Tribunal was not concerned) but to determining whether or not information is “environmental”:

“… both context and the motive of the requester are potentially relevant considerations. If the requester appeared to be wholly unconscious of an environmental aspect or import to his request, and stressed other reasons for his interest in the information, he could not be said to be denied environmental access rights if his request is not considered under EIR… If the Complainant had shown no evidence of concern about landscape impact, or if the allocation of the issue to one framework rather than the other could have led to a material difference in treatment of the substantive issue, these would have been relevant factors to take into account”.

Robin Hopkins

SOME REFLECTIONS ON SUPER-INJUNCTIONS AND PARALLEL UNIVERSES

May 23rd, 2011 by Robin Hopkins

The Committee on Super-injunctions, established in April 2010 in the wake of the Trafigura and Terry cases, was made up largely of judges and practising lawyers, but also included legal representatives from the Guardian and Trinity Mirror. Nonetheless, the media have not received its report, “Super-Injunctions, Anonymised Injunctions and Open Justice” warmly. The Independent has commented on the “absurdity” of the current situation, while the Daily Mail called the report “a chilling exercise in judicial activism, self-delusion and – most worrying – a constitutional attack on Parliamentary sovereignty and free speech”.

Tensions have escalated since the publication of the report on Friday, and reached a head today. Footballer “CTB” (as his injunction order refers to him) has obtained a disclosure order requiring Twitter (based in California) to divulge the names of the “persons unknown” (resident, of course, in jurisdictions unknown) who have referred to his identity in their tweets. Scotland’s Sunday Herald flouted the order of the High Court of England and Wales in publishing the player’s name. This has apparently prompted calls for the Attorney-General to take action against the journalist responsible, a course of action which in the view of SNP leader Alex Salmond would be unwise. Mr Salmond neatly articulated the jurisdictional (and devolutionary) difficulties of this issue, by arguing on this morning’s Today programme that anyone wishing an injunction to be effective in Scotland should apply to a court in Scotland. Fred Goodwin was “outed” in the Lords last week, and John Hemming MP has moments ago outed CTB himself.

And so it goes on. It has been announced in the past few minutes that a joint parliamentary committee will be established to consider privacy law reform. Against this backdrop, I set out a few (rapidly evolving) thoughts on four of the thorny issues raised by the report, the accompanying press conference given by Lords Neuberger and Judge and the general aftermath. On each of these four issues, my sense at the moment is that matters may develop in favour of openness rather than privacy – despite the failure this afternoon to overturn CTB’s injunction.

First though, a synopsis of the report’s thrust and limited terms of reference.

The report: procedure, not substance

As regards its subject matter, the committee distinguished between super-injunctions (where the order states that neither the named applicant’s private information nor the existence of the order can be published), anonymous injunctions (the order does not name the applicant or parties involved) and “so-called hyper-injunctions” (the order prohibits individuals from discussing matters with third parties).

It sees no legal barrier to any of these types of injunction taking effect. It thinks all such injunctions are very rare, but recommends that statistics be maintained on the granting of injunctions so that their prevalence can be monitored.

The report proposes a tidying up of the procedure for obtaining these injunctions. The committee gives a firm “no” to the use of specialist judges to hear these kinds of application. It says that Practice Guidance should be issued, which should include model orders and the process for expediting appeals against the granting of such orders.

Overall, however, the report is not about substantive law reform: that is a matter for parliament. In fact, it is now an urgent matter for parliament. In my view, some of the key issues to be considered are as follows.

Issue 1: media presence at injunction hearings

Parliament’s committee will, like the reporting committee, take Article 10 ECHR very seriously (for a very recent example of Article 10 affecting the interpretation of FOIA, see my post here). The report observes that “it will be a very rare case where advance notice of such an application to media organisations, which are likely to be affected by any order, can be justifiably withheld”. It proposes that the press be allowed to attend application hearings – bound of course by confidentiality agreements and non-disclosure orders. This would allow the media to be properly informed of the matters on which they may not report, and would also equip them to appeal against orders where they deem this appropriate.

This is doubtless a step in the right direction in terms of Article 10. As the committee recognises, however, there are real practical difficulties with the proposal. First, interim injunction hearings are often so rushed that there is no real prospect of a blanket invitation to the media. Secondly, how does one determine who the “media” are who are allowed to attend such hearings? As Lord Judge put it “we know who you [the media attending the release of the report] are, we’re familiar with you, but someone comes along and says, “I’m from the Argyll and Orkney Express” but how do we know? Do we really expect to have cards issued? Can you imagine the bureaucracy?”.

Part of the problem is this: either anyone with an interest in reporting the matter is allowed to attend, or only the “establishment” (this is my term, but seems the sentiment reflected in Lord Judge’s rhetorical question) is allowed, even though the aim is to make everyone subject to the order, establishment or not. The former option exponentially increases the risk of leaks and disclosures on Twitter. The latter option draws distinctions which are impracticable and problematic in terms of Article 10 and fairness in a broader sense. My view is that the former option will prevail, and that we will see a very broad net of media attendees at future super-injunction hearings. This in itself might serve as a deterrent to making such applications in the first place.

Issue 2: Twitter and other “modern technology”

There has been a flexing of judicial muscle as regards Twitter. Though he described “modern technology” as “totally out of control”, Lord Judge took hope from efforts to combat online child pornography. He said this:

“Are were really going to say that someone who has a true claim of privacy, perfect well made, which the media and newspapers can’t report, has to be at the mercy of someone using modern technology? At the moment that may seem to be the case but I am not giving up on the possibility that people who in effect peddle lies about others by using modern technology may one day be brought under control, maybe through damages – very substantial damages – maybe even through injunctions to prevent the peddling of lies”.

The language of “peddling lies” is curious. That is a concept belonging to libel law, rather than privacy. Those seeking super-injunctions tend not to say the underlying material consists of lies, but simply that it is private. The damage lies not in the falsity of the material, but in the fact that people talk about it.

This distinction is important in at least two respects. First, if an applicant wants to prevent people talking about the matter, but many people have already done so (for example, on Twitter), then his or her case for an ongoing injunction is weakened; it begins to look more a matter for damages than for injunctive relief.

Secondly, foreign jurisdictions may be even less cooperative about orders from England and Wales protecting private (but often true) material than they often are about similar orders concerning libel (see for example the United States’ Speech Act of 2010). Countries co-operate against copyright infringement and child pornography because they think it important to do so in a civilised society. They may be less inclined to think that about, say, Andrew Marr’s sex life. In other words, there is a good chance that legal action, whether for injunctive relief or damages, taken in England and Wales against foreign reporters may simply be impotent.

Contrast this likely impotence with measures for after illegal file-sharers through their internet service providers, proposed under the UK’s Digital Economy Act 2010 (on which, see my discussion here in advance of BT’s judicial review of that Act): unlike Twitter, ISPs often have a commercial footing in the UK which they are concerned to protect; international (including EU) legal protection is far more advanced than for copyright than for privacy; even under the Digital Economy Act’s proposal, infringing users are to be given a number of warnings before their details are handed over to those seeking damages, unlike the old Norwich Pharmacal model being utilised in the footballer’s action against Twitter.

Issue 3: granting and maintaining super-injunctions

The report emphasises that super-injunctions are not to be permanent, but should be granted only for very short periods of time. If anyone notices a super-injunction being granted with no return date, they should complain about it, as was done in the Zac Goldsmith/Jemima Kahn case. So far so good: allowing the media to be present for application hearings would help on this front, as would minimising the time between the interim injunction and the return date.

As regards the grounds on which a super-injunction should be granted, the report’s mood music suggests that some may have been granted too readily. It stresses that “in seeking to minimise derogations from the principle of open justice, the committee envisaged that super-injunctions will only be granted in very limited circumstances”. Other than to emphasise exceptionality and Article 10, there is probably little to be said (either by the committee or by parliament) in terms of guidance to judges on granting such injunctions – this is, and will remain, largely a case-by-case business.

The thorny issue of the moment, however, is this: if a matter has been very widely disclosed on Twitter and other websites, is it fair to maintain an injunction the effect of which is to prevent the establishment media from reporting it? If, as I suggested above, the damage comes from people knowing about what you have done, hasn’t the horse bolted in such circumstances? If people wish to reject your job application or shun you at parties, they will probably do so regardless of how they learnt about your indiscretions. Part of what seemed to concern David Cameron in his ITV interview this morning is this prejudicial effect on the establishment as compared with “newer” media, which commentators have described over the weekend as existing in “parallel universes”.

Lords Neuberger and Judge both suggested on Friday that, to the extent that there are differential effects on newspapers as compared to Twitter, that difference is justified. To a degree, they are correct: rightly or wrongly, we tend to expect more noble and sophisticated ethics from mature brands of journalism than we do from little-known blogs, and applicants no doubt suffer incremental damage from the public seeing matters reported in print headlines or on major news websites which they would otherwise have had to seek out on Twitter. There must come a point, however, where the media’s interests (including under Article 10) outweigh this combination of incremental harm and ethical expectation. That too is probably a matter for case-by-case determination, but it is something parliament’s joint committee will surely wish to consider. It may well side with the media over the privacy-seeking individual if forced to give guidance on a hypothetical case.

Issue 4: parliamentary privilege and contempt of court

The constitutional stakes are highest in this strand of the current debate.

The committee was very clear that no super-injunction or any other court order could conceivably restrict or prohibit parliamentary debate or proceedings. It also recognised that, in defamation proceedings, the reproduction of extracts from Hansard attracts attaches to, while honest, fair and accurate reporting of parliamentary proceedings attracts qualified privilege. It is unclear, however, whether the same would apply in contempt proceedings. In fact, “the law relating to Contempt of Court when it comes to reporting what is said in Parliament is astonishingly unclear”, as Lord Neuberger put it. The extent to which parliamentary privilege attaches to conversations between an MP and his or her constituents (some of whom may of course be journalists) is also unclear.

Lord Judge, however, explicitly disapproved of members of either house using parliamentary privilege to circumvent super-injunctions:

“But you do need to think, do you not, whether it’s a good idea for our lawmakers, to be in effect to be flouting a court order just because they disagree with the order or for that matter because they disagree with the law of privacy which parliament has created”.

John Hemming MP clearly takes a different view.

Again, there is much of interest in Lord Judge’s remark, such as the reference to parliament having created the law of privacy, and the implicit distinction between parliament flouting a court order and an individual member doing so. It would be very surprising, however, if parliament’s joint committee were to propose a constrained version of parliamentary privilege. If that committee is robust in defence of the houses’ privileges, the door may be opened to future “outings”, such as that of Fred Goodwin or CTB. Mindful of this, the reporting committee proposed a softer form of control than the restriction of parliamentary privilege. It suggested that:

“House authorities should consider the feasibility of a streamlined system for answering sub judice queries from the Speakers’ offices. Such a communication system will require the creation of a secure database containing details of super-injunctions and anonymised injunctions held by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, which could be easily searchable following any query from the House authorities”.

Parliament’s committee may well endorse this as the approach best suited to preserving a balance of respect (as opposed to contempt) between parliament, the courts, the media and individuals fearful of their privacy being overridden on political platforms.

On this issue, as with so much of the UK’s constitution, the answer may turn out to be a tense but workable network of understandings, rather than hard law. Perhaps this would calm matters only temporarily. But it might also provide breathing room for the public to evolve our expectations about privacy and freedom in both establishment and “modern technology” media, without bringing the latter under any undue “control”.

Robin Hopkins

OF CONSTRUCTION AND HUMAN RIGHTS: TRIBUNAL TO REVISIT S. 32(2) FOIA

May 19th, 2011 by Robin Hopkins

In Kennedy v IC and Charity Commission [2011] EWCA Civ 367, the Court of Appeal has referred back to the Information Tribunal the issue of whether s.32(2) FOIA should be “read down” (i.e. in favour of requesters) to give effect to Article 10 of the ECHR.

Ward LJ’s judgment begins like this:

“Mr George Galloway attracts attention”.

It goes on to explain that, between 1998 and 2003, Mr Galloway launched and ran the “Mariam Appeal”. This aimed to provide medical assistance in Iraq. It raised funds of nearly £1.5 million. The sources of and uses to which these funds were put generated some controversy. Investigations into the Mariam Appeal by the appellant journalist gave rise to an inquiry by the Charity Commission, which concluded in 2007. Shortly afterwards, the appellant requested information about this inquiry.

The Charity Commission refused, relying on the absolute exemption at s. 32(2) FOIA, which provides as follows (note its punctuation and structure – in particular how the commas and the use of “or” affects the flow and meaning of the section):

 Information held by a public authority is exempt information if it is held only by virtue of being contained in—

(a)any document placed in the custody of a person conducting an inquiry or arbitration, for the purposes of the inquiry or arbitration, or

(b)any document created by a person conducting an inquiry or arbitration, for the purposes of the inquiry or arbitration.

The Information Commissioner, Tribunal and High Court were broadly in agreement with the Charity Commission’s stance. The issue for the Court of Appeal was whether this exemption subsists only for the duration of the inquiry or whether it continues after the inquiry has concluded. In particular, the “troublesome issue” was whether the phrase “for the purposes of the inquiry or arbitration” relates to and qualifies (i) the reason for placing the document in the custody of the person, or (ii) the reason why the document is being held by the public authority. The latter construction favoured the Appellant’s case, but the Information Tribunal opted for the former construction.

Ward LJ held that the issue was “at least ambiguous if not in favour of the appellant. The grammar certainly does not provide a clear cut answer”. He therefore took a purposive approach. Here a number of factors militated against the construction for which the appellant argued:

  • It would produce a surprising discontinuity with s. 32(1) (the “court records” exemption).
  • It would render otiose s. 63(1) (which nullifies s. 32 once a document reaches the age 30 years).
  • S. 18(3) of the Inquiries Act 2005 could only be construed as amending s. 32(2) – otherwise there would have been no need to pass s. 18(3), which provides that

 “Section 32(2) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (c. 36) (certain inquiry records etc exempt from obligations under that Act) does not apply in relation to information contained in documents that, in pursuance of rules under section 41(1)(b) below, have been passed to and are held by a public authority.”

Ward LJ concluded that he could not “extract a clear and certain meaning” of s. 32(2). It was “at least susceptible” to the appellant’s construction, but on the ordinary principles of construction the appeal would have been dismissed.

At a late stage, however (in fact, once the parties had received the draft of the original judgment dismissing the appeal) the appellant contended that – given the finding of ambiguity – s. 32(2) had to be read so as to comply with Article 10 of the ECHR. The Court of Appeal decided that this was an important point, which the present case was ideally suited to answer. On this issue, therefore, the case is being remitted to the Information Tribunal.

Robin Hopkins

SHAMELESS FUNDRAISING PLUG

May 11th, 2011 by Timothy Pitt-Payne QC

The London Legal sponsored walk takes place next Monday (16th May), and 11KBW are fielding a team of 16 walkers. We are raising funds for the London Legal Support Trust which funds Law Centres and pro bono agencies in and around London. We know from our own pro bono work that these agencies do a fantastic job in preventing homelessness, resolving debt problems, gaining care for the elderly and disabled and fighting exploitation.  In the current economic climate their work is more important than ever.

It would be great if readers of this blog could sponsor us here.  If you’ve found the blog useful or helpful over the last 2 years, and would like to show your appreciation, then now is the time!