A history and overview of the FOIA/EIR veto

March 21st, 2014 by Robin Hopkins

The ‘veto’ (ministerial certificate) provision under s. 53 of FOIA (imported also into the EIRs) has been much discussed – on this blog and elsewhere – of late. Here is another excellent resource on the subject which is worth drawing to the attention of readers who want to understand this issue in more detail. Earlier this week, the House of Commons library published this note by Oonagh Gay and Ed Potton on the veto, its use to date, and comparative jurisdictions (Australia, New Zealand, Ireland).

Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin

Property searches under the EIRs: Tribunal refers questions to the CJEU

February 13th, 2014 by Robin Hopkins

The ability to impose charges for the provision of property search information is an important financial issue for many local authorities. Historically it had been thought by many that the imposition of such charges was governed by the Local Authorities (England) (Charges for Property Searches) Regulations 2008 (“CPSR”), which allow local authorities to recover all the costs of making such information available (including staff costs, overhead costs and the costs of maintaining relevant information systems). However, in recent years there has been an increasing awareness of the fact that requests for property search information to a large extent amount to requests for access to environmental information, such that they call for an application of the charging regime provided for in r. 8 of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004. The CPSR itself specifically provides that it does not apply to the provision of any information which is governed by other statutory charging regimes. Accordingly, it would seem that the CPSR is inapplicable in respect of requests for property search information insofar as those requests are made under the EIR.

Regulation 8 EIR allow reasonable charges to be imposed for making environmental information available, save that no charge may be imposed for permitting access to public registers or examining the requested information in situ. The question of when a public authority can impose charges and also what will constitute a reasonable charge has now been considered by the tribunal in a number of different cases, all of which concerned requests for property search information (see e.g. Kirklees Council v IC & Pali Ltd [2011] UKUT 104 (AAC) and also East Riding of Yorkshire v IC).

Earlier this year, in Leeds City Council v IC & APPS Claimants (EA/2012/0020-21); [2013] 1 Info LR 406, the First-Tier Tribunal was asked to decide whether, when making environmental information available other than by means of inspection or through public registers, the local authority was entitled under r. 8 to charge only for disbursements (the Commissioner’s case) or whether other costs, such as the cost of staff time spent searching for the requested information and overhead costs, could be factored into the charge (the Council’s case). Having carefully considered not only r. 8 but the provisions on charging in the Directive on Public Access to Environmental Information (“the Directive”), the FTT concluded that public authorities could only charge in respect of disbursement costs. It also held that Leeds had erred in determining the charge by reference to the CPSR. Leeds initially sought and was granted permission to appeal against the decision. However, the appeal was not pursued. Notably, the Commissioner argued before the FTT in the Leeds case that the question of what would constitute a lawful charge could not satisfactorily be resolved without a reference to the Court of Justice of the European Union. That argument was not supported by Leeds or the APPS claimants. The FTT decided that it could resolve the appeal without a reference and so none was made.

These issues have now resurfaced before the First-Tier Tribunal in East Sussex County Council v IC & Property Search Company & the Local Government Association (EA/2013/0037), another property search case. In this case, the applicant requested answers to questions in the standard property search form issued by the Law Society, the CON29R form. The Council imposed a fixed charge for providing this information, the fixed charge having been calculated on the basis of the approach provided for in the CPSR (i.e. was a charge which was intended to produce a cost neutral result for the Council). The charge itself factored in not only disbursement costs, but also staff time, a portion of the Council’s overhead costs, office costs and a portion of the costs of maintaining the information systems from which the relevant information is derived.

In light of an analysis of preparatory legislative materials for the Directive, the Commissioner conceded that costs beyond mere disbursement costs could in principle be factored into the charge. In particular, he argued that staff time spent searching for the information could be included. However, he disputed that other costs (e.g. overheads, office costs and the costs of maintaining the relevant information systems) could lawfully be included. However, the Commissioner’s position before the FTT was that, notwithstanding his concession, there remained substantial uncertainty as to what constituted a permissible charge under the Directive and a reference to the CJEU was still warranted. The other parties to the appeal ultimately agreed that this was an appropriate course.

The FTT has now decided that there should be a reference for a preliminary ruling. The questions being referred are:

(1) What is the meaning to be attributed to Art 5(2) of Directive 2003/4/EC and in particular can a charge of a reasonable amount for supplying a particular type of environmental information include:

(a) part of the cost of maintaining a database used by the public authority to answer requests for information of that type;

(b) overhead costs attributable to staff time properly taken into account in fixing the charge?

(2) Is it consistent with Arts 5(2) and 6 of the Directive for a Member State to provide in its regulations that a public authority may charge an amount for supplying environmental information which does “… not exceed an amount which the public authority is satisfied is a reasonable amount” if the decision of the public authority as to what is a “reasonable amount” is subject to administrative and judicial review as provided under English law?”

Hopefully the CJEU will in due course agree to give a preliminary ruling. In the meantime, local authorities and those engaged in the property search industry will have to wait with baited breath.

Anya Proops acts for the Information Commissioner.

Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin

The Prince Charles veto: JR fails due to availability of JR

July 10th, 2013 by Robin Hopkins

As Chris Knight reported this morning, judgment has been handed down in R (Evans) v HM Attorney General [2013] EWHC 1960 (Admin). The Upper Tribunal had ordered disclosure of certain correspondence between Prince Charles and government ministers (termed ‘advocacy correspondence’). The government – the Attorney General specifically – exercised the power of veto under section 53 of FOIA. The requester, Guardian journalist Rob Evans, brought judicial review proceedings. The Administrative Court dismissed his claim.

It did so despite “troublesome concerns” about the section 53, which it considered to be a “remarkable provision”.

For example, the Lord Chief Justice said: “The possibility that a minister of the Crown may lawfully override the decision of a superior court of record involves what appears to be a constitutional aberration” (paragraph 2); “It is an understatement to describe the situation as unusual. Indeed the researches of counsel suggest that it is a unique situation and that similar statutory arrangements cannot be found elsewhere in this jurisdiction” (paragraph 9); “It is not quite a pernicious “Henry VIII clause”, which enables a minister to override statute but, unconstrained, it would have the same damaging effect on the rule of law” (paragraph 10).

Nonetheless, a close examination of the wording and features of section 53 satisfied the court that it was not flawed on constitutional grounds. Parliament was mindful of what it was doing in enacting section 53. There are strict time limits and limits on who can issue a section 53 certificate; it must be laid before Parliament with reasons, it must be made on “reasonable grounds” and “the jurisdiction of the courts does not even purport to be ousted” (paragraph 81 in the judgment of Davis LJ). In effect, Parliament chose to build section 53 into a FOIA as an express check and balance on disclosure.

The Lord Chief Justice summed up the court’s assessment of section 53: “These provide that the ministerial override will be ineffective unless reasonable grounds for its exercise are identified. These reasons must be laid before Parliament for scrutiny and, if appropriate, parliamentary action. Making the reasons public in this way ensures that they are also immediately available for press and public scrutiny and, if appropriate, critical comment. More important, perhaps, is that the override decision of the minister is not final. The exercise of the override is itself subject to judicial scrutiny” (paragraph 13).

The court considered the meaning of “on reasonable grounds”, the key language from section 53. What standard did this connote? Davis LJ said “reasonable” meant just that: it did not needed to be glossed either by reference to Wednesbury standards, nor by reference to any higher standard.

The court was persuaded that the statement of the Attorney General’s reasons in this case did indeed demonstrate “reasonable grounds” for the decision. The Attorney General had guided himself by the government’s published policy which states that the veto will only be used in exceptional cases. He had considered and engaged with the Upper Tribunal’s decision. He addressed both FOIA and the EIR. He gave his view that great weight should be attributed to the importance of the convention of preparation for kingship, the need to avoid a chilling effect on related communications, the preservation of confidences and the need to avoid damage to the perception of political neutrality. The Commissioner himself had agreed with those factors and conclusions in his decision notice.

In the court’s view, the Attorney General’s reasons ‘made sense’. There can be “cogent” arguments for and against disclosure (as indeed the Upper Tribunal acknowledged were present in this case), and FOIA/EIR public interest assessments are not so much matters of fact or law (or a mix of both), but are exercises in evaluation. In that light, if it was said that the Attorney General could not simply prefer his own opinion to that of the Upper Tribunal, the rhetorical answer was “why not?”. Moreover, he was entitled to address the correspondence as a whole, rather than on a document-by-document basis.

Mr Evans had also argued that insofar as the veto related to environmental information, it was incompatible with the “access to justice” provisions of the Aarhus Convention and of the Environmental Information Directive. The court was not persuaded: the availability of judicial review sufficed for those purposes.

The Guardian has announced its intention to appeal.

Postscript:

It should also be remembered that this is not the only strand of the Rob Evans/Prince of Wales letters litigation. As Panopticon reported earlier this year, the Upper Tribunal has separately ordered disclosure of a schedule describing the withheld information. That decision is also subject to appeal: it has not (yet?) been vetoed. The saga continues.

Robin Hopkins

EIR: when is information ‘held’?

May 7th, 2013 by Edward Capewell

One of the issues which commonly arises for information law practitioners is the question, which arises under both FOIA and the EIR, of whether a public authority actually holds the information which has been requested. The leading case on section 1(1) FOIA is University of Newcastle v IC & British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection [2011] UKUT 185 (AAC), [2011] 2 Info LR 54 and substantially the same approach has been adopted in, for example, Keiller v IC and University of East Anglia [2012] 1 Info LR 128 and Clyne v IC & London Borough of Lambeth [2012] 2 Info LR 24 in relation to regulation 3(2) EIR. What is required is a common-sense and non-technical approach. That, of course, is easier stated than applied.

The issue arose again in Holland v IC & University of East Anglia (EA/2012/0098). Like Keiller, this case was concerned with the Climatic Research Unit (“CRU”) at UEA, the source of the so-called ‘Climategate’ controversy. Readers will recall that in November 2009 there was an unauthorised disclosure of a large number of emails concerning work undertaken at the CRU. The ensuing controversy led the university to set up the Independent Climate Change E-mail Review (“ICCER”) chaired by Sir Muir Russell, which reported in 2010.

Mr Holland, who had made a submission to the ICCER, requested “copies of all of the information held” by it. A lot of information had been published on the ICCER’s own website, and essentially what remained, the tribunal found, was the Review’s “working papers”. It seems not to have been in issue that they were in the physical possession of Sir Muir Russell or his solicitors and not UEA. The issue was, therefore, whether the information was held ‘on behalf of’ UEA for EIR purposes. The Commissioner thought not, and the tribunal agreed with him.

Directing itself by reference to BUAV as well as a number of other FTT decisions, the Tribunal decided that it needed first to examine the nature of the legal and practical relationship between UEA and the ICCER/Sir Muir Russell. It found that the inquiry could have been conducted internally, but that UEA had decided to externalise it not, as Mr Holland had argued, in order to avoid its obligations under FOIA and the EIR, but “at a time when UEA’s credibility was very much at stake, in order to inspire confidence in the independence of the findings” (para 104). It went on to find that there was nothing in the EIR, nor in the Aarhus Convention, which prevents public bodies from externalising functions or which means that environmental information thereby created is necessarily held by the public body (para 105). Although there was no written document evidencing a contract between Sir Muir and UEA, the Tribunal found that a contract did exist (para 108). It did, however, express considerable surprise at the absence of a written contract and of the fact that “there was no discussion … about the information that would be received or generated by the ICCER” (para 110). Nevertheless, the Tribunal accepted that both parties had proceeded on the assumption that UEA would have no claim to or be able to access the information and that it would be held by the ICCER on its own behalf (para 114).

The Tribunal went on to hold that there was no other sense in which the ICCER was beholden to UEA or in which its independence was compromised. It was not, as Mr Holland had argued, merely a ‘sham’: “we do not find it likely that [UEA] would have compounded its problems so greatly, and risked its credibility so completely, by setting up an inquiry that was independent in name only” (para 116). Neither the involvement of a Professor Boulton on the Review panel (who had previously worked for UEA) nor the decision not to publish the Appellant’s submission in full affected the fundamental independence of the ICCER (paras 117-118). It followed that the information requested was not held ‘on behalf of’ UEA and the appeal therefore failed. Interestingly, the Tribunal did perhaps give some succour to Mr Holland by saying in para 122 “It may be that the information should be held by the UEA and there may be good reason why, barring anything provided in confidence, the information should be passed to the UEA to form part of its historical records. Were that to happen, then in the future, the information may be held by the UEA.” Leaving aside the question-begging first sentence (why, in EIR terms, ‘should’ UEA hold this information?), the second sentence is an important reminder that the answer to the question of whether information is held is one which is liable to change over time and with circumstances.

Edd Capewell

EIR Exemptions and Aggregation : a round trip

December 17th, 2012 by Charles Bourne

The First-Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) has ruled on the appeal by the Office of Communications (Ofcom) which was remitted following the Supreme Court’s judgment in Ofcom v IC [2010] UKSC 3, [2011] 1 Info LR 1288 (which itself followed the decision of the Court of Justice of the European Union in Ofcom v IC [2011] 2 Info LR 1). By its new decision of 12 December 2012 the Tribunal declined to depart from its previous decision which was made back on 4 September 2007.

This lengthy circular journey began with a request in January 2005 by a representative of Health Protection Scotland for a list of mobile phone base stations held on the “Sitefinder” website  and for information that was not publically accessible through Sitefinder such as grid references for each base station. The information was requested under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR).

 Ofcom refused and relied on the exemption under regulation 12(5)(a), contending that the public interest favoured withholding the information since public safety would be adversely affected by the precise disclosure of the base sites. In particular, this would reveal the locations of the relevant database and thereby assist possible criminal activity. Ofcom also relied on regulation 12(5)(c), contending that the public interest favoured withholding the information because the intellectual property rights of the mobile network operators (MNOs) would thereby be adversely affected giving competitors an undue advantage.

 On 11 September 2006 the Information Commissioner (ICO) ordered disclosure, ruling that public safety would not be put at risk and also that regulation 12(5)(c) was not engaged. Ofcom appealed.

 In its 2007 decision the Tribunal upheld the ICO’s decision, taking the view that the purpose of Sitefinder was to permit important health research and that this comfortably outweighed any risk to the public from disclosing the information sought and any adverse effect to the public interest arising from prejudice to MNOs’ intellectual property rights. In particular it took the view that the exception would be made unworkable if it had regard to disadvantages the public might suffer if the MNOs, piqued by disclosure, decided permanently to withdraw their co-operation with Sitefinder.

 Ofcom appealed unsuccessfully to the Administrative Court on a number of issues but, on a further appeal to the Court of Appeal, succeeded on one i.e. whether the public interest in maintaining the two relevant exemptions could be aggregated – as opposed to the public interest balance being struck on each exemption separately.

 The ICO, undeterred, appealed this question to the Supreme Court. The Justices, unable to agree on the answer, referred it to the European Court which ruled that a public authority in these circumstances “may, when weighing the public interests served by disclosure against the interests served by refusal to disclose, in order to assess a request for that information to be made available to a natural or legal person, take into account cumulatively a number of the grounds for refusal set out in that provision.” The word “may” would prove to be rather important.

 The Supreme Court remitted the case so that the Tribunal could reconsider the public interest balance. And there this eventful journey ended with a second decision which largely echoed the first.

 The Tribunal (chaired by Tribunal Judge Marks QC) endorsed the ICO’s approach that aggregation is a right, not  a duty, so a decision maker will consider whether to aggregate but is not bound to do so. Aggregation may not always be appropriate, e.g. where the exemptions relied upon are so different that the exercise would not be feasible. The aggregation exercise is “impressionistic” rather than “mathematical”.

 What undid Ofcom was that the weight given to the exemptions was very limited. In respect of public safety, despite references to possibilities of crimes ranging from metal theft to terrorist attack, it was held that such risks already existed as a result of information already available so that disclosure of further information would not make much difference. As to intellectual property rights, the interests in question were held to be more private than public. And in each case, either they were already at risk or “the enhanced risk is so small as to be given no significance”. Once again the Tribunal ruled that it would not be appropriate to ascribe weight to any ongoing non-participation by MNOs.

 Aggregation did not alter these conclusions. The two exemptions were characterised as “apples and pears”, with no real link and thus no “sensible way of extracting or recognising, let alone applying, any common content as to public interest or interests”. But even when aggregated, the overall weight to be given to them was adjudged to be minimal. Where such minimal harm was difficult to identify and characterise in view of the large amount of information already in the public domain, an “impressionistic” approach would not lead to a different result.

 This case, believed to contain the first full consideration of aggregation, therefore does not give the impression that aggregation will be an especially powerful tool. The emphasis was on the ruling that a decision maker or tribunal may, but not must, aggregate.

 However, it remains to be seen whether future cases may bring further analysis of the “apples and pears” approach. Whilst different exemptions may protect quite different aspects of the public interest, it does not necessarily follow that the value of protecting the public in two different ways is not cumulatively greater than the value of protecting them in only one. If aggregation for some reason is “not feasible”, that is the end of the matter, but debate can be expected to continue on how often it will actually not be feasible to conduct a suitably “impressionistic” comparison of the totality of interests for and against disclosure.

Charles Bourne

Chagos Refugees Group in the First-Tier Tribunal: some key points

September 24th, 2012 by Robin Hopkins

The Chagos Archipelago forms part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (“BIOT”). In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the inhabitants of the Chagos Islands were required to leave those islands. At or around that time, a US military base was established on Diego Garcia, the largest of the Chagos Islands. The removal of the “Chagossians” has been a matter of considerable political and media debate, as well as complex legal proceedings. Two legal challenges are ongoing: Chagos Islanders v UK before the European Court of Human Rights, and Bancoult (No 3) before the domestic courts.

In 1999, the then Foreign Secretary commissioned a feasibility study concerning the possible resettlement of some of the islands. A preliminary study was conducted, followed a “phase 2B” study conducted by external consultants. The final report of the phase 2B study was made public. There was some ministerial correspondence about the studies.

In April 2010, representatives of the Chagossians sought information from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office about these studies. In particular, they asked for any draft versions of the phase 2B study (and any accompanying reports), as well as related ministerial correspondence.

The FCO disclosed some information, but withheld one note to a minister (Baroness Amos). As regards the draft reports, it claimed that – if these existed at the time of the request – they were held by the external consultants who authored them. The FCO maintained that the consultants did not hold that information “on behalf of” the FCO for the purposes of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004. The Commissioner upheld the FCO’s position.

The Tribunal (chaired by Andrew Bartlett QC) upheld the Chagossians’ appeal in part. A disclaimer to the following analysis: I appeared for the Information Commissioner. The post below is not a commentary on the case, but (with my Panopticon hat on) I highlight some of the points of general interest to FOIA and EIR practitioners. For a broader commentary on the case, see the excellent post from David Hart QC on One Crown Office Row’s UK Human Rights Blog.

The Tribunal in Chagos Refugees Group in Mauritius and Chagos Social Committee (Seychelles) v IC and FCO (EA/2011/0300) agreed with the FCO that information held by the consultants was not, at the date of the request, held “on behalf of the FCO” for EIR purposes. The Tribunal applied the guidance on the approach to “held” from University of Newcastle v IC and BUAV [2011] UKUT 185 (AAC), [2011] 2 Info LR 54 (see paragraphs 59-67). Generally, whether information is “held” will be a question of fact, but the Tribunal added that “we would also wish to qualify the proposition in McBride v IC and Ministry of Justice (EA/2007/0105) that whether information is held on behalf of a public authority is “simply a question of fact”. In some cases it will be important to determine the exact nature of the legal relationship between a person holding information and the public authority, or to determine the legal structure pursuant to which information was created and held” (paragraph 61).

The Tribunal analysed both the factual and legal relationship between the FCO and the consultants in reaching its conclusion. Its decision should be given careful attention when considering whether information is “held on behalf of” a public authority.

On the adequacy of the FCO’s own searches, the Tribunal said this at paragraph 70:

“… we consider it is relevant to draw attention also to the Tribunal’s remarks in the context of a FOIA request in Muttitt v IC (EA/2011/0036) (31 January 2012) at [68], to the effect that a search should be conducted intelligently and reasonably, and that this does not mean it should be an exhaustive search conducted in unlikely places: those who request information under FOIA will prefer a good search, delivering most relevant information, to a hypothetical exhaustive search delivering none, because of  the cost limit.”

As to the Baroness Amos note, the Chagossians were largely successful in their appeal: disclosure was ordered, bar a few redactions. In its analysis, the Tribunal considered the time at which the public interest was to be assessed. It has become almost trite in FOIA and EIR cases that the answer to this question is “at the time of the request or, at the latest, the date at which the public authority ought to have responded”. This question is, however, not altogether settled. In this case, the Tribunal was content to assess matters up to the date of the conclusion of the FCO’s internal review (see paragraphs 22-29). On a similar point, the UpperTribunal in Evans (see my earlier post on this) by no means considered it beyond doubt that matters should only be assessed at or shortly after the date of the request.

The Tribunal considered that weighty public interests would be served by disclosure of the contents of the Baroness Amos note, despite that being only a small amount of information. At paragraph 112 it said this:

“The amount of information in a potentially disclosable document is without doubt a material matter to take into account. At the same time, it is important not to discount unduly the significance, in the public interest, of the disclosure of small amounts of information. Publicly useful freedom of information requests are generally limited in scope. If too broad, they face the obstacle under FOIA of the costs limit, and under the EIR of the proportionality requirement. If the Tribunal were to take an unduly minimalist view of the value of the publication of relatively small amounts of information on matters of considerable legitimate public interest, this would materially reduce the effectiveness of the legislation. We would regard this as tending to conflict with the general purpose of  the legislation, as seen in the authoritative remarks in Sugar v BBC [2012] UKSC 4 at [76]-[77], which in our view apply with equal force to the EIR, particularly in view of the presumption in favour of disclosure found in EIR regulation 12(2).”

This outweighed the public interest in maintaining the exception for internal communications. Timing was key to the ‘safe space’ argument advanced by the FCO and the Commissioner. The Tribunal endorsed the approach taken in the Department of Health (NHS risk registers) case, whereby policy formulation can “dip in and out” of the need for a safe space. The Tribunal in this case concluded that (paragraph 123):

“We acknowledge the prospect that at some future date – perhaps in 2013, perhaps later – after the final conclusion of the two pending pieces of litigation, the resettlement policy is likely to be the subject of reconsideration. In our view that was at all material times, and remains today, a very weak reason for maintaining the confidentiality of a document written in entirely different circumstances in 2002.”

Robin Hopkins

Meaning of ‘public authority’ under the EIRs: ECJ to consider

September 14th, 2012 by Robin Hopkins

The leading authority on the meaning of “public authority” under regulation 2 of the EIR is Smartsource v IC and a Group of 19 additional water companies [2010] UKUT 415 (AAC). In that case, the Upper Tribunal found that the water companies were not public authorities for EIR purposes. Smartsource has been applied in, for example, Bruton v IC and Duchy of Cornwall and Montford v IC and BBC.

The issue has returned to the Upper Tribunal in Fish Legal v IC [2012] UKUT 177 (AAC), again in the context of water companies. As the Upper Tribunal has noted, however, the principles are relevant to other privatised, regulated industries that deliver a once publicly-owned service: electricity, gas, rail and telecoms. As the EIR implement European legislation, the meaning of “public authority” has been referred to the ECJ, which has recently published the questions it will be considering.

These involve the meaning of ‘performing public administrative functions under national law’ (is the applicable law and analysis purely a national one? If not, what EU law criteria should be used?), what does ‘control’ mean (in the context of one person/body controlling another) and does an ‘emanation of the state’ necessarily come within the definition? Another crucial issue is the so-called ‘hybrid authority’ question: if a body falls partly within the definition, do EIR rights apply only to those parts (functions, activities etc) that do, or to the whole of the person/body?

Those are, of course, paraphrases. The actual questions can be found here. The ECJ’s answers will be enormously important to information access rights in the UK.

11KBW’s Rachel Kamm represented the Information Commissioner before the Upper Tribunal.

Robin Hopkins

Commercial prejudice: the importance of precise and limited redactions

August 17th, 2012 by Robin Hopkins

In the recent decision in UK Coal Mining v IC, Nottinghamshire County Council & Veolia [2012] UKUT 212 AAC, the Upper Tribunal has dismissed an appeal concerned with section 43(2) of FOIA (commercial prejudice): the First-Tier Tribunal (decision EA/2010/0142, on which see our post here) had been entitled to find that only very limited redactions could be made to provisions from a PFI contract for a waste incinerator. Upper Tribunal Judge Wikeley’s decision, while largely fact-specific, illustrates two significant points.

First, appeals against FTT decisions are liable to fail where they are simply attempts to re-run questions of fact and judgment.

Secondly, those seeking to rely on section 43(2) FOIA should be as precise as possible. Sometimes, for example, a clause in a contract might appear commercially sensitive at first glance, but upon closer scrutiny all that really warrants withholding might be the numbers.

The background to the decision is briefly as follows. UK Coal entered into a complex PFI agreement with the Council for an option to lease a former colliery site the site, with Veolia then sub-leasing the site from the Council to operate an incinerator. Upon a request for the contracts, the Commissioner found that regulation 12(5)(e) of the EIR (confidentiality of commercial or industrial information) was engaged, but that the public interest favoured disclosure. Upon what was effectively UK Coal’s appeal, the FTT found that the matter should have dealt with under FOIA rather than the EIR. Section 43(2) was engaged, but the public interest favoured disclosure of at some of the disputed information. Eventually, the Tribunal largely endorsed the Commissioner’s (very limited) redactions, rejecting the much more extensive redactions proposed by UK Coal. UK Coal’s appeal to the Upper Tribunal failed.

As regards challenges to the FTT’s decision, Upper Tribunal Judge Wikeley said that it was important that the FTT’s statement of reasons is read as a whole, rather than highlighting particular phrases and taking them out of their wider context. The FTT had allowed for the redaction of what it called “core financial information”, but this was simply a convenient shorthand not amenable to close textual analysis or to legal challenge per se.

Notably, he said that this of the FTT’s assessment:

“This was a quintessential issue of fact and degree for the tribunal at first instance to determine… The bottom line is that UK Coal is essentially seeking to re-argue questions of fact and judgement which have been litigated and adjudicated upon on their merits by the FTT.“

Judge Wikeley also warned that the caution against relying too heavily on other FTT decisions (see the Upper Tribunal’s decision in LB Camden v IC and Voyias GIA/2986/2011) applies with even greater force to attempts to rely on other decision notices by the ICO (as UK Coal sought to do here).

Turning to the section 43(2) redactions urged by UK Coal, the Upper Tribunal considered these to be “far too wide-ranging” and its arguments unsustainable. Some of the terms it sought to withhold were commonplace to commercial agreements. The FTT had approached its redaction analysis with care and precision, and correctly struck a balance between protecting UK Coal’s proper commercial interests under section 43 while ensuring that other information is disclosed. In some cases, the FTT allowed only for the redaction of figures rather than terms as a whole. This nonetheless ensured that a member of the public would have “no idea as to either the commercial methodology or the key financial and other numerical variables used”.

The Upper Tribunal’s decision cites specific examples of the scope of redactions to commercial terms which the FTT applied and which the Upper Tribunal found to be entirely understandable. The examples merit close attention by those seeking to withhold information in similar cases.

Robin Hopkins

UPDATE ON RECENT TRIBUNAL DECISIONS

January 11th, 2012 by Rachel Kamm

The First Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) has had a busy start to 2012, with 7 decisions on its website already.

The first judgment out was Herbert v ICO and West Dorset District Council, EA/2011/0157. The appellant sought correspondence concerning the transfer to the Council of property previously owned by Lyme Regis Borough Council. The Council refused the request on ground that it was vexatious. The history of this case related to incidents and disputes regarding a different matter, between the appellant and the Council dating back to 1992, which culminated in 1996 when the Council revoked a license held by the appellant. The ICO agreed that the request was vexatious. The appellant submitted that he had a genuine interest in the history of Lyme Regis and that he believed that some historical documents were missing from the National Archives and that they had been retained by the Council because they related to illegally acquired property. The Council had previously allowed him to research their archives on another matter and he wished to be able to do so again to look for these missing documents. He said that he had expected the ICO to contact him so that he could put forward further arguments. The FTT agreed with the ICO and the Council that the request had been made under FOIA (and not the EIRs). The FTT set out the key principles that have been applied by Tribunals in considering whether requests were vexatious under s14 FOIA. The FTT considered the background and found that the appellant’s request was obsessive. Further, the request had the effect of harassing the Council (even though the language was not hostile), as allegations of illegality and impropriety were made at the same time as the requests and there was a context of a high volume of correspondence. The Council had made extraordinary efforts to accommodate the appellant’s requests over a considerable period of time and valuable resources of time and effort have been used which could otherwise have been used more productively. In the view of the FTT, to accommodate this request would constitute a further and significant burden on the Council. The FTT concluded that the request was vexatious.

The next decision to be promulgated was King v ICO, EA/2010/0126. The appellant sought from the ICO records of complaints where Crawley Borough Council had failed to comply with FOIA/EIRs and the ICO never served a ‘decision notice’. The ICO refused the request on ground that the information  consisted of ‘third party information’ that was exempt from the requirements of disclosure. It did not identify the exemption relied on for refusing to disclose the information. However, it did provide the appellant with a summary of the information requested. Further information was provided by the ICO in response to the appellant’s request for a review of the decision. The appellant then asked for the information with just the personal details of individuals removed. The ICO refused, citing s.44 FOIA, as exempting information that is prohibited from disclosure under another Act, namely s.59 DPA (which prevents disclosure of information collected in the course of an investigation where there is no lawful authority to do so). The appellant requested  review of this decision. In subsequent correspondence, the ICO  relied on s.40 FOIA (the data protection exemption). The appellant then asked the ICO to make a decision under s.50 FOIA as to whether it had complied with the Act. Having previously been acting in its capacity as a body which was itself subject to FOIA, the ICO then changed back to its normal hat. The ICO said that it was reversing its decision and it provided the appellant with the  letters which had been sent to the Council in the cases alleging non-compliance with FOIA, with personal data redacted. The appellant disputed that this resolved his request; he also wanted the documents from the individuals making complaints and from the Council. The ICO denied that these had been within the scope of his original request. The ICO subsequently issued a decision notice stating that it had provided the appellant with the information requested, but that it had breached FOIA (including by not holding an internal review at the right stage, by not providing the information at the outcome of the internal review and by not acting within the time-scales in the Act). The appellant appealed, arguing that the ICO had not provided all information which fell within the scope of his request, had misinterpreted his request and had breached the duty to provide advice and assistance. In relation to the scope of the request, the FTT criticised the ICO for not having properly analysed the request but found that in fact it had provided all information that fell within the scope of the request. The appeal therefore failed. The FTT also found that the ICO was not in breach of the duty to provide advice and assistance; the appellant argued that the ICO should have asked him to clarify his request, but the FTT found that this was not necessary because the request was in any event clear and adequately specified the information sought. This case very much turned on its facts, but it is interesting to see the application of FOIA to the ICO as a public authority and it is also a useful reminder to carefully read the request from the outset.

The third decision out in 2012 was Newcastle Upon Tyne Hospital NHS Foundation Trust v ICO, EA/2011/0236. This appeal was struck out because the judge considered that there was no reasonable prospect of it succeeding. The disputed information was statistics about the number of people dismissed over a three year period. The Trust refused to provide the information, on ground that it was reasonably accessible (s.21 FOIA) by way of an application in the employment tribunal litigation. The Trust subsequently provided the information voluntarily. The ICO found that the Trust had misapplied s.21 FOIA. The Trust appealed, arguing that “The point at issue is one of prioritising the correct forum by which information is provided. The Trust point is that once proceedings are issued, the correct forum lies within the proceedings that have been issued, in this case the Employment Tribunal“. Not surprisingly, the judge found that this argument had no reasonable prospect of success. FOIA rights are not put on hold if there is litigation between the parties. Further, information obtained under FOIA can be used for any purpose whereas information obtained in litigation can only be used for that purpose and so litigation disclosure is not an answer.

Cross v ICO, EA/2011/025 is also a strike out decision. The appellant sought from Havant Borough Council a building control decision notice, plans and inspection records relating to a loft conversion to his home carried out in 1987. The Council refused the request under the EIRs, on ground that it was not held at the time of receipt of the request. The appellant believed that he had seen these documents on a visit to the Council and that, whilst it was possible that they had subsequently disappeared, his appeal should not be struck out. However, the Council had conducted a six day trawl for the information and the judge found that it was obviously willing to provide the information if it could be found. The appeal was therefore struck out as having no reasonable prospect of success.

Finally, in Martyres v ICO and NHS Cambridgeshire, EA/2011/020, the FTT dismissed an appeal by an appellant who sought all information held by NHS Cambridgeshire (and its relevant community services provider), in respect of her deceased mother who had died on 29 August 2009 including information about the care received by her mother at a care home she was staying at prior to her death. The appellant argued that she was the next of kin, proposed executor and trustee of one of the Wills and had a valid claim against her mother’s estate under the intestacy  rules. In relation to s.41 (FOIA), the FTT found that the information was obtained from another person (social care professionals), it possessed the necessary quality of confidence and disclosure would constitute such an actionable breach of confidence. The FTT further concluded that s.21 FOIA did not apply, in that the appellant would not have been able to obtain the disputed information under the Access to Health Record Act 1980 (as the appellant claimed); whilst she was the nearest relative, she was not the personal representative. The FTT also dismissed the appellant’s arguments under the Human Rights Act 1998.

Rachel Kamm

AGGREGATION AND ARTICLE 10 IN THE FIRST-TIER TRIBUNAL: NEITHER NEEDED

November 8th, 2011 by Robin Hopkins

Sinclair v IC and Department for Energy and Climate Change (EA/2011/0052) concerned a request under the EIR from the Taxpayers’ Alliance for information on the potential financial and/or economic cost of Britain meeting a pledge to cut emissions by 42 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020. This pledge had been considered in connection with the Copenhagen Conference on climate change in 2009.

DECC refused this request, relying on regulations 12(5)(a) (disclosure would adversely affect international relations) and 12(4)(e) (internal communications).

In one of the first applications of the “aggregation” approach to the public interest test approved by the ECJ in the OFCOM case (on which, see here), the Commissioner held that the composite aggregated weight of the public interest factors in maintaining the two exceptions outweighed those which favoured disclosure – the international relations exception alone would not have sufficed.

The Tribunal was sufficiently impressed by DECC’s evidence to conclude that aggregation was not needed – the public interest in maintaining the international relations exception was sufficient to outweigh that in disclosure.

Interestingly, the Tribunal also considered an Article 10 ECHR argument: the appellant relied on that Article in support of his right to the requested information. The Tribunal found that Article 10 did not assist the appellant on the facts of his case. Its views on the application of Article 10 to information rights more generally was as follows.

In terms of authorities supporting the application of Article 10 to information rights, the high point was the Second Chamber decision in the ECtHR in Társaság a Szabadságjogokért v Hungary (Application no. 37374/05), in which the state had conceded that Article 10 rights were engaged where a civil liberties pressure group requested information about a complaint to the Constitutional Court.

Previous Grand Chamber authorities, however, had consistently rejected the proposition that Article 10 supported a right of access to official information.

The Tribunal is required to follow any clear and consistent Strasbourg jurisprudence. It found that “there is as yet no clear decision that Article 10 extends as far as Mr Sinclair submitted”.

11KBW’s Holly Stout appeared for the Information Commissioner.

Robin Hopkins