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

JUDICIAL REVIEW AND THE DPA: PATIENT’S CONSENT VITAL

November 7th, 2011 by Robin Hopkins

The Court of Appeal last week gave judgment in R (on the application of TA) v North East London NHS Trust (not yet reported or publicly available). The case is an interesting illustration of (a) the Data Protection Act 1998 being used as a ‘shield’ in an application for judicial review, and (b) the vital importance of patient consent in the use of medical records.

TA was engaged in family court proceedings with his ex-wife concerning custody of their children. Part of her evidence in support of her suitability to care for the children was the report of a psychiatrist at the defendant NHS Trust. According to that report, TA’s ex-wife did not suffer from a mental health disorder. TA complained to the Trust about this report. It refused to investigate the refusal because to do so would require it to access his ex-wife’s medical records. She had refused her consent to that access, and the Trust’s position was therefore that it could not investigate TA’s complaint without breaching the data protection principles in its processing of his ex-wife’s (sensitive) personal data. TA’s application for judicial review of the Trust’s refusal failed. So too did his appeal to the Court of Appeal.

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.

Judicially Reviewing the Information Rights Tribunal

June 22nd, 2011 by Christopher Knight

The Supreme Court today handed down its long-awaited (at least by some) judgment in R (Cart) v The Upper Tribunal [2011] UKSC 28. The case concerns the circumstances in which the ordinary courts will entertain an application to judicially review a decision of the First-Tier or Upper Tribunals. Although the case did not directly involve a challenge to the Information Rights division of the Tribunals, the judgment is of general application.

The Upper Tribunal is a “superior court of record” by virtue of section 3(5) of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007. Under section 13, there is a right of appeal to the Court of Appeal from the Upper Tribunal, subject to permission being granted by either body, unless the decision falls within the category of excluded decisions. The most generally relevant excluded decision is a refusal of permission to appeal from the First-Tier Tribunal to the Upper Tribunal by the Upper Tribunal. Where permission is refused that is, in the eyes of the 2007 Act structure, the end of the line. Unless one can judicially review the decision to refuse permission.

The Divisional Court roundly rejected the argument that the designation of the Upper Tribunal as a superior court of record rendered it immune from judicial review ([2009] EWHC 3052 (Admin); [2010] 2 WLR 1012) and the absolutist position was not resurrected on appeal. The Court of Appeal agreed with the Divisional Court that judicial review should be available only in circumscribed cases ([2010] EWCA Civ 859; [2011] 2 WLR 36). The Supreme Court unanimously dismissed the appeal, but for different reasons.

The leading judgment of the Supreme Court was given by Lady Hale, with whom the rest of their Lordships more or less completely agreed, albeit in their own words. Rejecting the application of an unrestricted judical review jurisdiction over all decisions in the Tribunal structure, and the application of an exceptional circumstances test limited to an excess of jurisdiction and denial of fundamental justice, the Court settled on a more easily described approach. Where an application is made for judicial review of a Tribunal decision the High Court should apply the second appeals criteria, namely that (a) the proposed case would raise some important point of principle or practice, or (b) there is some other compelling reason for the court to hear the case.

It was considered by Lady Hale and the other members of the Court that this test was a proportionate and rational restriction on the availability of judicial review which nonetheless recognised the importance of correcting errors in the Tribunal’s case load. The exceptionality test would have been too narrow, and applying judicial review without limitation would have lead to the courts being swamped with applications in respect of a system designed to make the process easier, quicker and cheaper (especially in the light of its application to immigration and asylum cases).

Interestingly, there were a number of comments from Lady Hale, Lord Phillips, Lord Clarke and Lord Dyson to the effect that the situation would be made clearer by an amendment to the CPR remove the potential four stages of judicial review permission applications in these quasi-second appeal cases. Whether the Rules Committee is paying attention remains to be seen.

The upshot of the decision in Cart is that if the Upper Tribunal refuses permission to appeal to it, that decision can be judicially reviewed, but only on the restrictive second appeals criteria. The tenor of the judgments as a whole do not provide much appetite for leave to be readily granted, and in both cases under appeal the Supreme Court roundly rejected their compliance with the second appeal test.

For those reading north of the border, the Supreme Court applied the same approach to the Tribunal structure in Scotland in Eba v Advocate General for Scotland [2011] UKSC 29.

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

April 20th, 2011 by Robin Hopkins

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

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

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

More analysis to follow when these judgments are made available.

PUBLIC LAW REASONABLENESS NOT A MATTER FOR THE COMMISSIONER OR TRIBUNAL

April 17th, 2011 by Robin Hopkins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ACCESS TO PROPERTY SEARCH INFORMATION – TEST CASE IN THE ADMINISTRATIVE COURT

March 18th, 2010 by Anya Proops

This has been a particularly busy week so far as the law relating to accessing property search information is concerned. On 15 March, I blogged about a new Information Rights Tribunal judgment on the application of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR) to requests for property search information – see my post. On 17-18 March 2010, the Administrative Court (Hickinbotham J) heard a test case judicial review of the policy of City of York Council on access to and charges for property search information under the Local Authorities (England) (Charges for Property Searches) Regulations 2008. The Claimant, Onesearch Direct Limited, maintains that all local authorities have an obligation under the 2008 Regulations to grant it direct access to their property records, and to charge no more than the cost of doing so. It is understood that Onesearch are pursuing their claim under the 2008 Regulations rather than the EIR in part because of the administrative inconvenience of having to wait up to 20 days to receive a response under the EIR (see r. 5(2) EIR). Judgment is expected on Friday 20 March 2010. Jason Coppel represents the Council.

Make it intelligible

March 25th, 2009 by Panopticon Blog

Posted by James Goudie QC

One of the circumstances when there is a duty to provide information is when there is a duty to consult. One of the four elements of fair consultation is the provision of adequate information on which to respond. In R (Breckland DC) v The Boundary Committee and R(East Devon DC) v The Boundary Committee [2009) EWCA Civ 239] concerned with proposals for local government reorganistion, the Boundary Committee (BC) was under a statutory duty to solicit representations upon their draft proposals and to take account of those representations. The Court of Appeal today held that this meant that the BC must carry out a process of consultation, including publishing enough material to enable all those interested to respond intelligently, and that the information must be published in a form which members of the public may understand. The Court of Appeal further held that the BC had failed adequately to consult on affordability, because they had not provided sufficiently intelligible information in relation to that criterion or given adequate time for response to it.