As Chris Knight reported this morning, judgment has been handed down in R (Evans) v HM Attorney General  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.
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.