Confidentiality of medical information after patient’s death: two new Upper Tribunal decisions

November 14th, 2013 by Robin Hopkins

The absolute exemption at section 41 extends to information obtained by the public authority the disclosure of which would give to an actionable breach of confidence. Does the obligation of confidence survive the death of the confider? If so, would a breach of that obligation be actionable, even if it is not clear exactly who could bring such an action? These issues arise most notably in the context of medical records. The Upper Tribunal has had something to say on this in two recent decisions.

In Webber v IC and Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust (GIA/4090/2012), the appellant had made a FOIA request for information (including hospital records) about the death of her son in 1999 when he was compulsorily resident at Rampton hospital. This was refused on section 41 grounds. The Commissioner upheld the refusal, as did the First-Tier Tribunal. In doing so, it somewhat unusually did not see the withheld information for itself, since it had not been asked to by anyone.

Mrs Webber’s appeal to the Upper Tribunal has also been dismissed. Judge Williams considered that the Tribunal could not be faulted for not differentiating between different categories of withheld information (which it obviously could not do, as it had not seen the information): “it is the task of the tribunal to decide the case before it unless it sees reason to investigate further” (paragraph 30).

He also confirmed the well-established principle that what matters under FOIA is information rather than documents: though the records were created by the NHS Trust, the information contained in those records came from the patient. In the section 41 context, “obtained” simply means “come to have”, which can be active or passive (paragraph 38).

Judge Williams confirmed a further touchstone of FOIA, namely that whatever the particular interests of the requester, this “remained an application to put the information into the public domain” (paragraph 37), that being the effect of disclosure under FOIA.

Disclosure would entail a breach of confidence which was actionable after the patient’s death, notwithstanding the argument that, in this case, the only person who could sue would be the personal representative (who was likely to have been the requester: thus it was submitted that she would in effect have been suing herself).

Judge Williams also found that there would not have been a public interest defence to the breach of confidence. Here he gave weight to the fact that some of the information sought would or could come into the public domain or be obtained in another way: a coroners’ inquest, or through an application under the Access to Health Records Act 1990 (now largely supplanted by FOIA, but not as regards deceased persons) which allows for requests for access to information to be made by (inter alia) patients’ personal representatives. Such an application was outside the Upper Tribunal’s jurisdiction but it was “relevant to note that it exists as a specific if limited remedy for some aspects of the application made for the appellant in this case” (see paragraphs 23-24).

In M v IC and Medicines and Health Products Regulatory Authority (GIA/3017/2010), Upper Tribunal Judge Lloyd-Davies allowed the requester’s appeal for information in a report held by the public information concerning a pharmaceutical trial of a drug developed by Pfizer. That information had again been withheld under section 41, with the Commissioner and First-Tier Tribunal agreeing – regardless of whether the participants in the trial were dead or alive at the time of the request.

The appeal was allowed because of a procedural error – the Tribunal had authorised more extensive redactions than were in fact being put to it.

The remitted hearing is to include questions of identifiability of patients in the context of anonymised drug trial data. The line of authorities on statistical information (Common Services Agency, Department of Health) will no doubt be considered.

The decision contained this obiter observation on actionable breaches of confidence in the case of deceased patients: “where the confidence arises in the context of a patient/healthcare professional relationship, I am minded to conclude that the obiter observations of Mr Justice Foskett in R (Lewis) v Secretary of State for Health [2008] EWHC 2196 (QB) are correct”.

I acted for the Commissioner in the M case; my colleague Joe Barrett acted for the appellant in Webber.

Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin

Two new Upper Tribunal decisions: commercial confidentiality, ministerial communications

October 25th, 2013 by Robin Hopkins

The Upper Tribunal has issued two decisions on information rights matters this week. Both are by Upper Tribunal Judge David Williams, and both include substantive treatments of some of the issues that arise most commonly in information rights litigation.

Natural Resources Wales and SI Green (UK) Ltd v Information Commissioner and Friends of the Earth Swansea [2013] UKUT 0473 (AAC) saw the Upper Tribunal overturn a First-Tier decision on commercial confidentiality under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, concerning the operation of a landfill site near Swansea. I was not involved in the First-Tier Tribunal proceedings, but blogged on the decision here. The Upper Tribunal’s decision is here. It found that, contrary to the approach of the First-Tier Tribunal, regulation 12(5)(e) EIR (confidentiality of commercial or industrial information where such confidentiality is provided by law to protect a legitimate economic interest) is not the same as section 41(1) of FOIA (actionable breach of confidence).

In Judge Williams’ second judgment published this week, he upheld the First-Tier Tribunal’s decision in Cabinet Office v IC and Gavin Aitchison (EA/2011/0263). Anya blogged on the First-Tier Tribunal decision here. In essence, it concerned the takeover of Rowntree by Nestle in 1988 and what, if anything, ministers in the Thatcher government had said to each other about it. Questions also arose about the relevance of the reduction of the ‘Twenty-Year Rule’ for historical records to a ‘Ten-Year Rule’. The relevant exemptions were sections 35(1)(a) and (b) (formulation or development of government policy; Ministerial communications). The Tribunal found the public interest to favour disclosure (and, as regards one part of the request, confirming or denying whether any information was held relating to Cabinet discussions on the topic). The Upper Tribunal agreed. See here: Cab Off Aitchison GIA 4281 2012-00, and also the coverage by the requester (a journalist at the York newspaper The Press) here.

Given my involvement in both cases, I don’t offer any analysis on Panopticon today. Instead, I offer them as weekend reading for enthusiasts. You’re welcome.

Robin Hopkins

Board minutes of a public/private joint venture confidential and commercially sensitive

October 11th, 2012 by Robin Hopkins

Joint ventures between the public and private sectors are increasingly common. They are often a focus for vigorous political debate over issues such as the costs involved, the savings to the public purse, the profit to the private sector partner, and allegations of conflicts of interest. While those are political arguments on which Tribunals take no view, they do point to the significant public interests that are engaged when considering access to information. So said the Tribunal in David Orr v IC and Avon and Somerset Police Authority (EA/2012/0077), a recent decision notable for grappling with access to information about such a public/private joint venture.

South West One Limited (“SW1”) is a company formed in 2007 as a joint venture by three West country public authorities (together owning 25% of the company) and IBM (75%) to create for their own use and promote and sell to other authorities IT support systems of various kinds. Given its membership of the board of SW1, the second respondent police authority held minutes of its board meetings. The requester asked for that information. The police authority refused, relying on ss. 41 (actionable breach of confidence) and 43(2) (prejudice to commercial interests) of FOIA. An important feature here was that the joint venture agreement contained confidentiality clauses, including one providing that “each of the parties… shall hold in confidence… any financial or other information in respect of the company or the business”. The Commissioner upheld the refusal, finding no evidence that the agreements were being used to circumvent FOIA improperly.

The Tribunal agreed. It rejected the requester’s argument that SW1 should be treated as a public authority for FOIA and EIR purposes. It also upheld reliance on s. 41. It found that redactions would not suffice to remove confidentiality:

“… removal of the name of the targeted purchaser might not conceal its identity from well – informed readers. More fundamentally, board minutes are, by their nature, confidential information. They record disagreements and minority opinions. They should frankly describe the inner workings of the company, whenever significant issues are discussed. It is important in the shareholders` interests, that board minutes fully reflect what has been transacted.”

As to the prospects of success for a public interest defence to an action for breach of confidence, the Tribunal noted the police authority’s sympathy with the requester’s position: “any loss of transparency or “democratic deficit” arising from the creation of SW1 was an inevitable consequence of joint ventures involving public and private sector entities working together through a limited company.”

The Tribunal approached the public interest defence as follows (paragraph 32):

“We have regard, on the one hand, to what is already in the public domain and, on the other, to the undoubted importance of transparency in the operation of joint ventures, in so far as that is consistent with the proper commercial interests of the company thereby created, here SW1. If a joint venture company has been formed for the specific purpose of frustrating the duties of disclosure enacted in FOIA; if public funds are being needlessly squandered in a badly – managed business; if serious conflicts of interest are or may be distorting the company`s operations, then there may be a strong case for disclosing information which reveals such facts.”

None of those concerns arose here, and an action for breach of confidence would not be defeated.

Similar considerations meant that reliance on s. 43(2) would also succeed here. On this issue, the Tribunal observed (paragraph 37) that even where a joint ventures is between public authorities alone (i.e. without the involvement of a private sector partner), the case for reliance on s. 43(2) may be equally strong.

For further analysis of this case, see the Local Government Lawyer.

Anya Proops represented the police authority.

Robin Hopkins

PROTECTING CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION UNDER FOIA – NEW FTT DECISION

April 28th, 2012 by Anya Proops

The FTT has recently handed down a decision which considers in some detail the operation of s. 41(2) FOIA (exemption in respect of confidential information): Moss v IC & Home Office (EA/2011/0081). In Moss, a request was made for disclosure of a particular report prepared by IBM and provided to the Home Office. The report was compiled in circumstances where IBM was seeking to tender for provision to the Identity and Passport Service (IPS) of a biometric recognition system and was, as part of this process, considering which biometric software provider to partner with. The report sought to test the suitability of various biometric software providers and their products with a view to establishing which provider should be treated as the preferred provider in the context of the tender. IBM decided to provide the report to the IPS in order to build confidence in the solution that it was offering to the IPS as part of the tender process. The report was provided to the IPS in circumstances where there were various agreements in place which, whilst recognising the IPS’ obligations under FOIA, effectively obliged the IPS to treat the information it received from tenderers as confidential. Mr Moss submitted a request to the Home Office for disclosure of the report. The Home Office refused to disclose the report, relying on a number of exemptions including s. 41(2). The Commissioner concluded that the refusal was lawful on an application of s. 41(2). On appeal to the tribunal, Mr Moss sought to argue that the Commissioner had misapplied s. 41(2). In a lengthy judgment, a majority of the tribunal upheld the Commissioner’s decision. However, the minority held that the report ought to have been disclosed, subject to redactions to protect in particular the commercial interests of the software providers. The majority judgment is notable not least because of its emphatic approval of the test for breach of confidence adopted by Megarry J in Coco v Clark [1968] FSR 415. Other aspects of the majority judgment which are worthy of note include the majority’s conclusion that the public interest defence will not be available in respect of a potential claim for breach of confidence merely because the public has an interest in seeing the information in question (see in particular paras. 84 et seq).

Interestingly, both the majority and the minority touched on issues relating to the application of Article 10 in their respective judgments. The majority alluded to Article 10 in the context of highlighting the ways in which the Article 10 right to freedom of expression may bolster a prospective public interest defence against a claim for breach of confidence. (The existence of such a defence is relevant to the question whether, for the purposes of s. 41(2), disclosure of confidential information would give rise to an ‘actionable breach of confidence’). The minority, by way of contrast, alluded to the Article 10 right to receive information, which had recently been considered in the Sugar and Kennedy cases (in the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal respectively). The minority queried whether and to what extent the recent jurisprudence on the Article 10 right to receive information ought to be shaping the analysis of the public interest defence under s. 41(2). See further my earlier post on the Kennedy judgment here.

Anya Proops

DATABASE RIGHTS AND BREACH OF CONFIDENCE

November 18th, 2011 by Rachel Kamm

The Chancery Division has considered the scope of the database rights in the Copyright, Designs and Patent Act 1998  in Forensic Telecommunications Services Ltd v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire [2011] EWHC 2892 (Ch).

The Claimant was a forensic services company, which recovered digital evidence from mobile phones for criminal investigations. It had a list of the permanent memory absolute addresses for different types of phone (known as PM Abs addresses) and it created software from this list. The Claimant had granted the security service a licence to use the software, but this did not extent to law enforcement agencies. A police officer (who was the Second Defendant to the claim) received several PM Abs addresses from a security operative and he posted them on the internet. Other law enforcement officers added to the list. The police officer created a list which contained 32 of the Claimant’s 33 PM Abs addresses. The police officer used this list to create software that was similar to the Claimant’s software.

The Claimant issued a claim against the police officer’s force (the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire) and the police officer personally, alleging infringement of its copyright and database rights.

The Court found that no copyright subsisted in the individual PM Abs addresses because the skill, judgement and labour expended in ascertaining the addresses was not of the right kind to attract copyright protection. The PM Abs list was however a database because the addresses were systematically arranged and individually accessible (meeting the test in section 3A of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988) and therefore it was not protected by copyright. The Claimant had made a substantial investment in obtaining and verifying the data on the list and therefore a database right subsisted in the list. The police officer had extracted and re-utilised a substantial part of the database and thereby infringed the Claimant’s database right. The police force was vicariously liable for this act of infringement.

The Claimant also succeeded in a claim for breach of confidence against both Defendants. The PM Abs list had the necessary quality of confidence, since it was valuable information collated by  the Claimant through the exercise of skill, judgement and labour which was not in the public domain. The police officer had misused this confidential information by posting the list on the website forum and making copies of it for his own use. The police force was again vicariously liable for the police officer’s actions.

FROM NAKED PHOTOS TO NUCLEAR ENRICHMENT: ROUNDUP OF NEW TRIBUNAL DECISIONS

September 26th, 2011 by Robin Hopkins

The past week saw a slew of new decisions from the First-Tier Tribunal. Here is Panopticon’s highlights package.

Sections 41 (information obtained in confidence) and 43 (commercial prejudice)

In DBIS v IC and Browning (EA/2011/0044), the requester (a Bloomberg journalist) had sought information from the Export Control Organisation in connection with licences issued for the exporting to Iran of “controlled goods” – explained by the Tribunal as “mainly military, dual use (potentially military), equipment designed for torture or repression or sources of radio-activity”. The relevant public authority, the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, refused the request, relying on sections 41 and 43. The IC found for the requester on the narrow basis that, whilst disclosure would result in a breach of confidence, no commercial detriment would be suffered by the licence applicants as a result. Subsequent evidence from the Department persuaded the IC to change position and support the appeal, which was resisted by the applicant. In a decision which turned on the evidence, the Tribunal allowed the appeal, and found both sections 41(1) and 43(2) to be effective.

Section 42 (legal professional privilege)

Two recent decisions on this exemption. Both saw the Tribunal uphold the refusal, applying the established approach under which this exemption has a strong in-built public interest. Szucs v IC (EA/2011/0072) involved an FOIA request about an earlier FOIA request (the appellant requested the legal advice and associated documents provided to the Intellectual Property Office about how to deal with a previous FOIA request made by the appellant’s husband). Davis v IC and the Board of Trustees of the Tate Gallery (EA/2010/0185) is eye-catching primarily because it concerned the Tate’s legal advice concerning the inclusion in an exhibition of a photograph of the actress Brooke Shields, aged ten, naked, entitled “The Spirit of America” (the Tate had initially proposed to include this in an exhibition, but ultimately withdrew the photograph).

Section 40 (personal data)

Beckles v IC (EA/2011/0073 & 0074) concerned the identifiability of individuals from small sample sizes, in the context of information about dismissals, compromise agreements and out-of-court settlements. The appellant asked Cambridge University for information on (among other things) the number of employees who received post-dismissal settlements. The answer was a low number. He asked for further details concerning the settlement amounts, rounded to some appropriate non-exact figure. This, said the Tribunal (applying the Common Services Agency/Department of Health approach to identifiability from otherwise anonymous figures) was personal data, the disclosure of which would be unfair. Its reasoning is summed up in this extract:

“Information as to the settlement of a claim made by an identified individual relating to his or her employment is undoubtedly personal data. The question is whether the four individuals or any of them could be identified if the information requested were disclosed, even in approximated form…. Cambridge University is made up of a large number of much smaller academic or collegiate communities. It is likely that a number of colleagues or friends will be aware that a particular individual settled a claim with the University within the time-scale specified. They will be aware of the general nature of that person`s employment. This is a small group of claims in a relatively short period. In the form originally requested it is readily foreseeable that one or more of the four will be identified.”

Sections 24 (national security) and 27 (international relations)

Burt v IC and MOD (EA/2011/0004) concerned information gathered by staff of the UK Atomic Weapons Establishment on an inspection visit to a United States atomic energy facility, as a learning exercise regarding the proposed development of an enriched uranium facility at Aldermaston. The US had expressed its desire to maintain proper confidence in what it regarded as a sensitive area. The MOD refused the request, relying on sections 27 and 24. By the time of the appeal, only a small amount of information had not been disclosed. This was primarily of a technical nature, containing observations about the operation of plant, machinery, procedures and processes at the US facility.

The Tribunal upheld the MOD and Commissioner’s case as regards the outstanding material. As regards section 27, the Tribunal applied the principles from Campaign against the Arms Trade v IC and MOD (EA/2006/00040). It observed, however, that confidential information obtained from another country would not always be protected by section 27: it was “perhaps axiomatic that the foreign State will take the United Kingdom as it finds it including but not limited to the effect of its own domestic disclosure laws. It follows that there may well be cases where information otherwise imparted in confidence from a foreign State to a United Kingdom authority would need to be considered on its own merits as to whether some form of disclosure should be made or ordered whether under FOIA or under similar analogous legislation or principles such as the UK data protection principles.”

As regards section 24, the Tribunal applied Kalman v IC and Department of Transport (EA/2009/0111) (recourse to the exemption should be “reasonably necessary” for the purpose of safeguarding national security), and Secretary of State for the Home Department v Rehman [2003] 1 A 153 (the threat to national security need not be immediate or direct).

Burt is also an example of a “mosaic effect” case: taken in isolation, the disputed information may appear anodyne, but the concern is with how it might be pieced together with other publicly available information.

Section 14(1) FOIA (vexatious requests)

Dransfield v IC (EA/2011/0079) is an example of the Tribunal overturning the Commissioner’s decision that section 14(1) had been engaged (for another recent example, see my post here). As with many such cases, the history and context were pivotal. Given that it is the request, rather than the requester, which must be adjudged to be vexatious, how should the context be factored in? The Tribunal gave this useful guidance:

“There is, however, an important distinction to be drawn between taking into account the history and context of a request, as in the cases referred to above, and taking into account the history and context of other requests made by a requester or other dealings between the requester and the public authority. The former is an entirely proper and valid consideration. The latter risks crossing the line from treating the request as vexatious, to treating the requester is vexatious. That line, in our view, was crossed in the present case.”

Robin Hopkins

Launch of Information Law Reports

July 19th, 2011 by Rachel Kamm

 The Information Law Reports launched on 14 July 2011, with the following announcement on 11KBW’s website:

Leading chambers 11KBW and legal publisher Justis Publishing are collaborating in a first for both organisations: the creation of a new series of law reports available both in bound volumes from next week and on the established Justis platform from this morning.

Information law is ever more important, seeking to balance the “right to know” and the “right to be left alone” in an age of massive databases and global information flows. We all want to protect our own privacy; but we also want to understand how public authorities make decisions and spend our money. This new series will help professionals grapple with these issues.

Timothy Pitt-Payne QC, a barrister at 11KBW and one of the editors of the new reports, said: “There is a growing case-law, generated by the specialist Information Rights Tribunal and the higher courts. Navigating this material and quickly identifying the most important recent developments is increasingly challenging. The Information Law Reports seek to meet this need, bringing together all the most important cases in a single source. 11KBW are delighted to be working with Justis on this much-needed project.

Masoud Gerami, Managing Director of Justis Publishing, said: “We have had a number of significant milestones in our 25-year history, mostly associated with innovation and developments which have changed legal information dissemination for the better. I am delighted that another milestone has been added to our list of achievements by producing the new series of Information Law Reports in association with 11KBW, the leaders in this increasingly important field. I believe that the complementary nature of the expertise from the partners in this project is the ideal requirement for any successful product or service, and we look forward to a continued relationship with 11KBW.”

He added: “This is also the first time that Justis Publishing has produced a product in hard copy, and we are very excited about the possibilities that the combination of hard copy and online versions will present.

For further information, please call +44 (0)20 7267 8989 or email press@justis.com.

CHANNEL 4 APPEAL: FOR FOIA PURPOSES, CONTRACTS ARE SEVERABLE

March 23rd, 2011 by Robin Hopkins

Channel 4 v IC and BSkyB (EA/2010/0134) saw the Tribunal consider a short, but potentially very significant point concerning the application of s. 43(2) FOIA, the exemption for commercial confidentiality, to long and complex contracts.

Channel 4 argued that where the substantial parts of a long and detailed contract are exempt under s. 43(2), then the whole contract is exempt. In other words, the public authority is not required to analyse the contract on a clause-by-clause basis. The Tribunal rejected all of Channel 4′s arguments in support of this position – including arguments based on the construction of s. 43(2), a comparison with the EIR, principles of contract, Veolia, ECHR rights and the cost and expense involved. The established approach, which requires clause-by-clause consideration of the application of exemptions, therefore remains intact.

PAYMENTS TO SENIOR PUBLIC SECTOR EMPLOYEES: ROUNDUP OF RECENT PERSONAL DATA CASES

February 22nd, 2011 by Robin Hopkins

The FOIA update paper given at last week’s 11KBW Information Law Seminar provides a roundup of recent caselaw in a few of the most common areas of Tribunal litigation.

One is commercially sensitive or confidential information: in particular, Veolia and its aftermath.

Another is information on planning applications and property developments: in particular, those cases subsequent to South Gloucestershire, namely Bristol City, Bath & North East Somerset and Elmbridge.

A third area is personal data: here the recent cases of Dun, Bryce, Ferguson and Ince have all – like the cases mentioned above – been covered in Panopticon posts. Two others to take note of, however, both in the context of public sector pay (other than salaries).

One concerns bonus payments to public sector employees. Davis v IC and Olympic Delivery Authority (EA/2010/0024) saw the Tribunal distinguish between bonus information and performance assessment information. It ordered disclosure of certain information relating to the bonuses of senior employees of the ODA: the maximum performance-related bonuses to which the chief executive and communications director were contractually entitled, and the percentage of the maximum available bonus actually paid to certain other members of senior management. The Tribunal decided, however, that details of the performance targets which individuals failed to hit to 100% satisfaction should not be disclosed.

The other recent case on the personal data exemption is Pycroft v IC and Stroud District Council (EA/2010/0165). The context was an auditor’s report which observed that the local authority’s former Strategic Director of Housing “did not ensure that staff had taken ownership of managing the budgets”. The applicant requested the details of this Director’s early retirement package. The Commissioner found that disclosure of this information would not be fair, and the Tribunal agreed. It should be noted by those dealing with requests for information about payments to allegedly poorly-performing public sector employees.

TRIBUNAL ORDERS DISCLOSURE OF VIABILITY REPORT FROM HAMPTON COURT PLANNING APPLICATION

January 7th, 2011 by Robin Hopkins

Elmbridge Borough Council v IC (Additional Party: Gladedale Group Limited) (EA/2010/0106) is the latest Tribunal decision concerning requests for information about planning applications (see my posts on other such cases here and here, and Anya’s post on an earlier important planning case here). In particular, the disputed information here comprised a viability report containing details on costs, revenues, values and finances of a development in the vicinity of Hampton Court. The Council pleaded commercial confidentiality and sought to rely on regulations 12(5)(e) and 12(5)(f) EIR. The Commissioner found that these exemptions were not engaged. The Tribunal agreed, and ordered disclosure.

In so doing, the Tribunal confirmed that the confidentiality of this information must be objectively required at the time of the request (rather than, for example, when the information was created or passed to the Council) in order to protect a relevant interest. The Tribunal also confirmed that it is not enough that some harm might be caused by disclosure, but that it is necessary to establish (on the balance of probabilities) that some harm to the economic interest would be caused by disclosure.

A crucial feature of this case was the lack of evidence offered to demonstrate commercial confidentiality or prejudice. The Tribunal observed that:

“Throughout the investigation and consideration of the issues leading to the Decision, the Respondent consistently and repeatedly sought evidence from the Appellant to support their contention that the subject information was commercially sensitive or that its release would be prejudicial to the third parties concerned. It is noted by this Tribunal that the information made available to the respondent amounts to assertions and speculation by the interested parties. There is a notable absence of independent or objective evidence to support the assertions or speculation put before the Respondent.”