Happy birthday FOIA: orthodoxy and liberalism

January 15th, 2015 by Robin Hopkins

With FOIA celebrating its tenth birthday this month, it is striking that one of its most taken-for-granted axioms has been called into question. The axiom is this: the relevant time is the time of the request, extending perhaps until the statutory time for compliance with the request. When you are assessing the public interest balance and the engagement of exemptions, that is the time you look to; you ignore later developments.

In Defra v IC and the Badger Trust (GI/79/2014), the requester (the Badger Trust) had requested information about Defra’s risk assessments for the proposed badger culling programme. The ICO ordered disclosure. Defra appealed. The case was transferred to the Upper Tribunal due to a witness anonymity issue. The Upper Tribunal dismissed Defra’s appeal. It was not persuaded by Defra’s evidence as to the public interest balance. The judgment is here DEFRA v ICO and Badger Trust – Judgment on Public Interest.

In its judgment, the UT pondered the question of the relevant time. It declined to rule, but stated that it considered this question to be an open one: see paragraphs 44-48. A central tenet of FOIA/EIR orthodoxy over the past decade has been called into question.

Another recent UT judgment is worthy of note as FOIA turns ten. It does not introduce uncertainty, but rather – from the point of view of FOIA’s fans – provides a heartening affirmation of the purpose of the legislation. The case is UCAS v IC and Lord Lucas [2014] UKUT 0557 (AAC): see here UCAS. It was about the extent to which FOIA applied to UCAS. The point I draw out here is this one, at paragraph 39 of the decision of Judge Wikeley:

“I agree with Mr Knight that the starting point in this exercise in statutory interpretation must be the principle that FOIA is a constitutionally important piece of legislation, the scope of which must be interpreted broadly. This much is plain from Sugar (No. 2) itself (see Lord Walker at [76] and Lord Mance at [110]), as well as from other decisions of the House of Lords and Supreme Court (see Common Services Agency v Scottish Information Commissioner [2008] UKHL 47 at [4] per Lord Hope and Kennedy v Charity Commission [2014] UKSC 20 at [153] per Lord Sumption). This emphasis on a liberal construction is, to borrow a phrase from a different context of statutory interpretation, the golden thread which runs through the FOIA case law, whether in the rarefied atmosphere of the Supreme Court or on the judicial shop floor at the First-tier Tribunal.”

So then, happy birthday FOIA. Some of the assumptions of your youth may be in question, but your golden thread is strong. Somebody put that in a greeting card, please.

I appeared in the Badger Trust case. Chris Knight appeared in the UCAS case.

Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin

Legal professional privilege does not automatically engage an EIR exception

May 6th, 2014 by Robin Hopkins

FOIA provides an exemption (s. 42) expressly for legal professional privilege; as is well known, there is ‘strong inherent weight’ in maintaining that exemption. What about the EIRs? LPP is not expressly mentioned, but regulation 12(5)(b) EIR applies to information the disclosure of which would adversely affect “the course of justice, the ability of a person to receive a fair trial or the ability of a public authority to conduct an inquiry of a criminal or disciplinary nature”. Does information attracting LPP automatically come within that exception? Many practitioners operate on the assumption that the answer is ‘yes’. The Upper Tribunal has on a previous occasion, however, left that question open: DCLG v IC and Robinson [2012] UKUT 103 (AAC); [2012] 2 Info LR 43.

That question has recently been revisited. In GW v IC, Local Government Ombudsman and Sandwell MBC [2014] UKUT 0130 (AAC), the Upper Tribunal answered ‘no’: just because LPP applies, it does not automatically follow that regulation 12(5)(b) EIR is engaged. Further analysis is needed – and the onus is on the public authority to make out its case on adverse effects on the course of justice etc.

The requester has complained to the Council about what was being emitted from the chimneys of two of his neighbours who were using wood-burning stoves. The Council obtained written legal advice from counsel. It told the requester it could not progress his complaint as he wished. He complained to the Ombudsman. The Council shared its legal advice with the Ombudsman, expressly on a confidential basis. The requester sought that advice from the Ombudsman. His request was refused. The IC’s decision went against him. So too did that of the First-Tier Tribunal.

The Upper Tribunal, however, found that the FTT went wrong in attributing too much weight to the prejudicial effects which it thought likely to arise “simply through the weakening of this important doctrine” [of LPP].

UT Judge Turnbull considered the wording of regulation 12(5)(b) EIR and said this: “In my judgment that requires attention to be focused on all the circumstances of the particular case, and there is no room for an absolute rule that disclosure of legally privileged information will necessarily adversely affect the course of justice”.

The crux, in his judgment was this: “What particularly matters for present purposes is in my judgment that the rationale for the doctrine and its absolute nature is established as being the need for the client to be able to obtain legal advice on a full and frank basis”.

In the present case, disclosure would be unlikely to prejudice that underlying principle – the Council’s ability to obtain free and frank advice would not be impeded. “What might be damaged would be not the course of justice but the ability of the LGO to conduct future investigations on a fully informed basis” – but that was a different point to the one at the heart of the FTT’s reasoning. The FTT had thus gone wrong in its public interest analysis.

Interestingly, one factor in the UT’s reasoning appears to have been that it was not taken to “any particular part or feature of the Advice which the Council would be unhappy about disclosing, or pointed to any specific concern which it has about Mr W or the public in general seeing it. Nor has it been suggested, for example, that the Advice needs to be qualified because of some inaccuracy or incompleteness in the instructions to counsel. The weight to be accorded to the adverse effect on the course of justice in this case is in my judgment very substantially less than it would have been if the LGO had been able to rely on the weakening of the doctrine of LPP which compulsory disclosure of legal advice will almost always involve”. This offers useful indications of what, in this UT’s view, might suffice to engage regulation 12(5)(b) EIR in respect of information which attracts LPP.

The public authorities also sought to rely on regulation 12(5)(d) EIR (confidentiality of proceedings). By regulation 12(9), however, that exception cannot be relied upon “to the extent that the environmental information to be disclosed relates to information on emissions”. Did that disapplication provision bite here? No, said the UT: “In substance the Advice did not “relate to” information as to the particular nature and extent of those emissions, but rather it related to the meaning and effect of the legislation”. In this case, regulation 12(5)(d) EIR was engaged.

Turning to the public interest balance, a preliminary point addressed by the UT concerned timing: matters post-dating the statutory time for compliance with a request can only properly be taken into account to the extent that they shed light on matters as they stood up to that time, or if they are relevant to the IC’s ‘steps discretion’ under s. 50(4) FOIA. They are not otherwise relevant to the public interest balance.

What might count in favour of the disclosure of privileged information? “In my judgment, therefore, when considering this issue it is relevant to consider not only whether the Council (and/or the LGO) made statements which were positively wrong, but whether they made statements which were liable to mislead or confuse the reader, and so have generated a confusing picture as to the effect of and reasoning behind the Advice”.

In this case, while there was no intention to mislead, “the combined effect of the information which the LGO and the Council had given up to this point was liable to create substantial confusion, in the mind of any reasonable reader, as to what the Advice did say”.

As to the public interest in maintaining the exception, the main factor was “the effect which disclosure would have on the ability of the LGO to obtain legally privileged information from local authorities on the footing that it should remain confidential” – especially given that the Ombudsman cannot compel local authorities to share such information with it. There would thus be a chilling effect on such information-sharing.

In contrast, the unfairness to the Council of having its legal advice shared with the requester was a relatively weak factor.

Overall, however, the balance very firmly favoured the maintenance of the exception. In this case therefore, the likely damage to the LGO’s work prevailed where LPP had not.

Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin

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

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

HRH the Prince of Wales: advocacy of an ordinary man

September 19th, 2012 by Robin Hopkins

The Upper Tribunal’s judgment in Evans v IC and Others (Seven Government Departments) [2012] UKUT 313 (AAC) (Mr Justice Walker, Professor John Angel and Suzanne Cosgrave), handed down yesterday, has received extensive media coverage – unsurprisingly so, given the subject matter (Prince Charles’ correspondence with government departments) and the requester (Rob Evans of the Guardian). The judgment is stupendously long (65 pages, plus 3 open annexes). Here are the salient points.

The issues

Mr Evans made requests in April 2005 for correspondence between Prince Charles and seven government departments. Crucially, this was confined to correspondence involving “advocacy” on the part of Prince Charles, i.e. information on (a) “identifying charitable need and setting up and driving forward charities to meet it”, and/or (b) the promotion of Prince Charles’ views on various issues. It was described as “argumentative correspondence”. The interaction with government first revealed in the Prince Charles-approved biography by Jonathan Dimbleby published in November 1994.

Disclosure was refused on the basis of a number of exemptions under FOIA: ss. 37(1) (communications with Her Majesty, with other members of the Royal Family or the Royal Household), 40(2) (presonal data) and 41 (actionable breach of confidence). Insofar as it comprised environmental information, the requested information was refused on the basis of reg. 12(5)(f) EIR (adverse affect on the interests of the person who provided the information).

The relevant date for the Upper Tribunal’s assessment was 40 days after Mr Evans’ requests for interal reviews of these refusals, i.e. 28 February 2006. At that stage, the relevant part of s. 37(1) was a qualified rather than an absolute exemption.

The Upper Tribunal found in Mr Evans’ favour with respect to all of the exemptions: the public interest favoured disclosure (in the case of the qualified and EIR exemptions), disclosure of the relevant personal data would not breach a data protection principle, and any action for breach of confidence would be defeated by a public interest defence.

The crucial issue: advocacy correspondence and the education/apprenticeship convention

The case for withholding the information was to stand or fall with the analysis of the relevant constitutional conventions (practices which are non-legal but fundamental to the UK’s parliamentary democracy) concerning communications between the monarchy and government. The Upper Tribunal analysed these conventions in depth, and addressed the crucial issue of the extent to which they were relevant to the “advocacy” correspondence in dispute.

Two conventions are extremely important. The cardinal convention is that the monarch acts on advice. The tripartite convention is that the monarch is entitled to be consulted, to encourage and to warn her ministers. The Upper Tribunal was satisfied that “there is ample reason to justify the principle that the internal operation of these two conventions is not revealed, at least until after a long time has passed” (paragraph 87). These two conventions, however, apply only to the sovereign – not to the heir.

The pivotal convention relied on in this case was the “education convention”, whereby the heir to the throne is to be instructed in the business of government. The Upper Tribunal preferred this label to the proposed alternative of “apprenticeship convention”: the latter term assumed what it had to prove, namely that Prince Charles was through the disputed correspondence practising the skills required of him when he becomes the sovereign, rather than some other skills. Also, the work of apprentices is overseen by masters; Prince Charles is thus not like an apprentice or, for that matter, a pupil barrister (the Upper Tribunal noted) insofar as he is conducting his advocacy correspondence.

Until relatively recently, the education convention was, in constitutional terms, “little more than a footnote” (paragraph 89). Nonetheless, it was important, and the Upper Tribunal’s judgment did not entitle Mr Evans to information caught by that convention.

The fundamental issue here was that, contrary to the case for the government departments (who advanced the novel case that the education convention encompassed all information of this kind) the advocacy correspondence did not come within the education convention. The Upper Tribunal considered that the alleged constitutionally-important confidentiality of such advocacy correspondence could not be reconciled with the disclosures in the Dimbleby biography.

Ultimately (paragraph 99):

“The plain facts are that what Prince Charles is doing is not prompted by a desire to become more familiar with the business of government, and simply is not addressing what his role would be as king…  they all have as their context Prince Charles’s strong belief that certain action on the part of government is needed.”

See also paragraph 106:

“… there is an overwhelming difficulty in suggesting that there is good reason for regarding advocacy correspondence by Prince Charles as falling within a constitutional convention… it is the constitutional role of the monarch, not the heir to the throne, to encourage or warn government. Accordingly it is fundamental that advocacy by Prince Charles cannot have constitutional status… the communication of encouragement or warning to government has constitutional status only when done by the monarch.”

The key conclusion: Prince Charles’ advocacy correspondence has no special status favouring non-disclosure

The Upper Tribunal was clear that, for Prince Charles as for anyone else seeking to advance charitable causes or promote views through correspondencw with government, such advocacy correspondence would generally be disclosable. See paragraph 7:

“Confidential interaction between government ministers and others, in a context where those others are seeking to advance the work of charities or to promote views, would generally be disclosable – especially where those others have privileged access to ministers. Our conclusion is that special factors concerning Prince Charles will not – under the legislation governing the requests in this case – generally result in a different consequence.”

In other words, Prince Charles’ advocacy correspondence is to be treated in the same way as anyone else’s. See paragraph 210:

 “We are not persuaded that they warrant giving correspondence between ministers and Prince Charles greater protection from disclosure than would be afforded to correspondence with others who have dealings with government in a context where those others are seeking to advance the work of charities or to promote views.”

The result was that the public interest/fairness factors favouring non-disclosure were not especially weighty, at least in that they did not have any constitutional significance. This judgment is also the first binding confirmation that, as with the EIR, the public interests protected by each separate FOIA exemption are to be aggregated, and the cumulative public interest in non-disclosure is to be weighed against that in disclosure (see paragraph 207).

The public interest in disclosure

So, when analysing the public interest/fairness case for withholding the information, Prince Charles was to be treated like an ordinary person. Prince Charles is, however, not like an ordinary person, given his position and influence. The Upper Tribunal found there to be great public interest in how he sought to wield that influence through his advocacy correspondence. It also made a number of important observations on ‘general’ (i.e. non-case-specific) factors favouring disclosure, and commented on the relevance of media interest. The most notable public interest points are below.

The Upper Tribunal firmly endorsed the strength of the public interest in transparency on important governmental matters generally, irrespective of whether the particular information does or does not answer any questions of specific concern. See paragraph 133 (my emphasis):

“… we think it important that the strength of these general interests should be acknowledged rather than minimised. It is because other methods of achieving accountability and transparency have had only limited success that freedom of information has been agreed by signatories to the Aarhus convention as regards environmental matters, and enacted more generally throughout the United Kingdom as a whole. When disputed information concerns important aspects of the working of government, the interests in accountability and transparency will be not merely of general importance, but of particular strength.”

On a similar note, the Upper Tribunal was clear that an informed debate was something of great importance, regardless of whether the information helped dispel or confirm any particular suspicions about how Prince Charles wielded influence. See paragraph 151:

“It seems to us that the perception that Prince Charles exercises special influence stems from the biography. As to whether it would either be confirmed or dispelled by disclosure of the disputed information, this too seems to us to miss the point: the public interest lies in having an informed debate.”

Moving on to the particular nature of the information in dispute, there was strong public interest in transparency of Prince Charles’ advocacy correspondence, particularly given that he seeks to conduct that correspondence in a way that represents the interests of (at least some of) the public. See paragraphs 141-142, and 152:

“The fact that Prince Charles corresponds with and meets ministers, on confidential terms, is in the public domain: but without the disclosure of actual examples of the correspondence, it is difficult for the public to understand what this actually means in practice… whether this country should remain a monarchy is of course a legitimate matter of public debate. More generally, debate about the extent and nature of interaction between government and the royal family, and how the monarchy fits in to our constitution, goes to the heart of understanding the constitutional underpinning of our current system of government. We conclude that these are all important and weighty considerations in favour of disclosure.

We agree with the Departments that when it is said that Prince Charles speaks “on behalf of us all” that reflects that he writes to ministers on what he believes is in the public interest. This, however, does not answer Mr Evans’s point that it seems incongruous that the public should not know about it.”

As to the public interest defence to a breach of personal confidence, the Upper Tribunal considered it important that Prince Charles voluntarily conducts himself as a public figure. See paragraph 202:

“It would be unreal to contend that Prince Charles is not a public figure. Neither the Commissioner nor the Departments advance such a contention. There is, however, in our view a strong air of unreality about their contention that his birth gave him no choice as to whether to engage in advocacy correspondence. The analogy made by Mr Fordham with a hereditary peer was in that regard compelling: some may feel impelled to intervene for the public good as they see it, either publicly or behind the scenes. Others may not. Applying the Strasbourg case-law we see no basis for saying that when Prince Charles does so his actions must be characterised as “truly personal.” On the contrary they are, on his own description, all motivated by a desire to put the “Great” back in Great Britain.”

Media interest was a relevant public interest factor, but the Upper Tribunal was careful to distinguish sensationalism from serious reporting. See paragraph 157 (my emphasis):

“The media interest in Prince Charles’s interaction with ministers is substantial.  It seems to us that this is not a factor which in itself necessarily favours disclosure.  What is relevant is that there is a real debate, generating widespread public interest, on a matter which goes to the heart of our constitution.  Sensationalism merely for the sake of it will not generally be in the public interest.  The media accounts we have seen have, on occasion, had sensationalist aspects.  For the most part, however, the media reporting is of a kind which has focused on the substance.  It is relevant when assessing the public interest to note the extent to which, over the relevant period, there have been media reports of this kind.”

The Upper Tribunal was not persuaded that disclosure would have a “chilling effect” on correspondence between the Prince and the government. Nor did it consider it relevant that the Prince’s advocacy was not motivated by any desire for commercial gain.

A final important point on the public interest balance concerned the argument (advanced relatively frequently) that disclosure of this information would engender misconceptions or misunderstandings on the part of the public. Again, the Upper Tribunal was not persuasive. It said this at paragraph 188 (my emphasis):

“There is, as it seems to us, a short answer to all the various ways in which the Departments have sought to rely on dangers of “misperception” on the part of the public. It is this: the essence of our democracy is that criticism within the law is the right of all, no matter how wrongheaded those on high may consider the criticism to be.

The future: ‘interesting questions’

Given its assessment of important constitutional principles (not only as regards the heir to the throne, but as regards democratic engagement more generally), this judgment is a very important development in FOIA jurisprudence.

However, s. 37 is now largely an absolute exemption (thanks to the changes to FOIA made by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act; as an aside, see the unsuccessful attempt to obtain information on how those changes came about: Pragnell v IC and Ministry of Justice (EA/2011/0279)). Does this mean Evans is of largely historic interest when it comes to information concerning the monarchy? The answer is, probably not. First, some requests for information made prior to the CRAG changes remain to be resolved. Secondly, the EIR have of course not been correspondingly changed – which raises what the Upper Tribunal considered “interesting questions”. “Environmental information” has been sought from members of the royal family in the past: Bruton v IC and Duchy of Cornwall (EA/2010/0182)) was one such case, and one imagines it will not be the last. The Evans principles may therefore be highly relevant in future cases.

11KBW’s Jonathan Swift QC, Julian Milford and Tim Pitt-Payne QC appeared in this case.

Robin Hopkins

The Equitable Life collapse: strong public interests needed to trump s. 30

September 14th, 2012 by Robin Hopkins

Wynn v IC and Serious Fraud Office (EA/2011/0185) concerned the dramatic closure in late 2000 of the insurer Equitable Life. Both the Ombudsman and the Penrose Inquiry examined the collapse and published their reports. Attempts to compensate those who lost money have been pursued through the courts and considered by parliament.

The Serious Fraud Office became involved to consider whether any criminal charges should be brought against those involved in the collapse. Pursuant to its functions under the Criminal Justice Act 1987, it analysed the material and took legal advice in order to decide whether or not to commence a criminal investigation. In effect, it investigated whether or not to investigate. In December 2005, the SFO announced that it would not commence an investigation.

Mr Wynn was dissatisfied with that decision. Eventually, in 2009, he asked the SFO for all of the information it held on Equitable Life. It provided him with some information – importantly, this included (pursuant to a direction from the ICO) a ‘vetting note’, which summarised the SFO’s reasoning on why successful prosecutions were unlikely. The SFO withheld the remainder of the voluminous information it held, relying on s. 12 (cost of compliance) for some it and ss. 30(1) (investigations) and 42 (legal professional privilege) for the rest. The ICO agreed.

Mr Wynn’s appeal to the Tribunal was dismissed. The Tribunal was satisfied that the s. 12 estimate was reasonable and well evidenced. S. 30(1) was engaged: a preliminary investigation (or, as I have put it above, an investigation into whether to investigate) was an investigation for s. 30(1) purposes nonetheless.

The public interest favoured maintaining that exemption. Case-specific points included the substantial transparency delivered by the Ombudsman and Penrose Inquiry reports and the SFO’s vetting note. There was nothing to suggest that the SFO had got things wrong.

The decision also contains a number of points of more general application. The Tribunal endorsed the account given in Breeze v Information Commissioner (EA/2011/0057) of the concerns protected by s. 30(1): protecting witnesses and informants (including their confidentiality), maintaining the integrity of the prosecution and judicial process, and ensuring that the court remained the sole forum for determining guilt. The ‘safe space’ point was also important: prosecutors need a safe space in which to make their decisions without any fear their frank assessments being publicised too soon after the event.

Notwithstanding the passage of time between the conclusion of that investigation and the request under FOIA, those factors counted very heavily in favour of maintaining the exemption under s. 30(1). The Tribunal endorsed this general proposition from Public Prosecutor of Northern Ireland v IC (EA/2010/0109): “in order for disclosure to be ordered in such cases public interest factors of at least equal weight would have to be adduced. A general interest in transparency as to a prosecution authority’s decisions will not be sufficient. Something substantial and particular to the information would be required” (paragraph 35).

The general upshot is that, in recent years, s. 30(1) has grown into a ‘strong’ exemption, i.e. one that requires weighty and particular factors to ‘defeat’. ‘Safe space’ arguments have also fared somewhat better in the prosecution context than the policy-making
context (under s. 35 of FOIA) in Tribunal decisions over the last year or two.

Finally, it is long-established that s. 42(1) is a ‘strong’ exemption, requiring weighty factors if disclosure of privileged information is to ordered. None were forthcoming in Wynn.

Robin Hopkins

The BBC in the Tribunal: not a public authority under the EIR; strong arguments for disclosure of licence fee legal advice

August 17th, 2012 by Robin Hopkins

In Montford v IC and BBC (EA/2009/0114), the appellant had asked the BBC various questions about its expenditure in relation to Cambridge Media and Environment Program, which researched and planned a programme of seminars that had been running since 2005 at which BBC editorial staff discussed issues such as environmental change and world development, with the objective of improving BBC journalism in those areas.

The BBC is a public authority within Schedule 1 of FOIA only within the following parameters: “The British Broadcasting Corporation, in respect of information held the purposes other than those of journalism, art or literature”. The Supreme Court addressed this “derogation” from FOIA in Sugar v BBC [2012] UKSC 4: see our post here. Montford concerned not only the application of Sugar to this request, but also an argument that, given the subject matter of the request and the BBC’s activities, the BBC was a public authority within the meaning of regulation 2 of the EIR.

The Tribunal considered the leading cases on the latter point (Smartsource, Port of London, Network Rail, Bruton) and – applying the multifactorial approach from Smartsource – concluded that the BBC was not a public authority under the EIR. Further, the requested information was not environmental: that requires more than a remote link to the environment, and in the present case there was no link. It was therefore FOIA which applied, and Sugar meant that the requested information fell within the derogation. The BBC therefore did not have to provide it.

The BBC also featured – though not as a party – in another Tribunal decision of late. Crawford v IC and DCMS (EA/2012/0018) concerned the conclusion of the ‘BBC settlement’, ie the funding arrangements (freezing of the licence fee, BBC taking over World Service funding and so on) agreed with extraordinary speed between Jeremy Hunt and BBC Trust chair Michael Lyons in October 2010. The requester – a BBC journalist – sought information about that agreement. By the time of the hearing, the only disputed information was legal advice, which fell within section 42(1) of FOIA. The argument focuses on the public interest.

As readers will be aware, information falling within section 42(1) has very rarely been ordered for disclosure by the Tribunal. One gets the sense from the Tribunal’s decision in Crawford that the appellant here came closer than most to getting the information he sought.  The Tribunal noted the unprecedented speed with which negotiations about matters of great public interest were concluded in 2010. In the circumstances, there were “weighty factors in favour of disclosure of any information which can shed light on how this speedy settlement which affects so many people was reached. In other words there is a significant public interest in transparency and accountability in this case”. The stumbling block, however, was that the disputed legal advice shed only limited light on those concerns. Disclosure was thus not ordered. The Tribunal concluded on a note of sympathy with the requester:

“We would observe that we can understand why Mr Crawford has pursued this matter to a hearing despite disclosure of most of the information originally requested. It seems to us, that despite the exceptional nature of the CSR, the haste of the negotiations and lack of record of what took place means that Mr Crawford has quite understandably had to challenge the DCMS into providing whatever contemporaneous record there might be to help him in his journalist pursuit to provide the public with the facts of this unprecedented Licence Fee Settlement with its far reaching effects.”

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

Police Surveillance – New tribunal decision

June 20th, 2012 by Anya Proops

Earlier this month Robin Hopkins blogged on a recent admin court judgment applying Article 8 to the police’s act of retaining data on a protestor (see his post on the Catt case here). This week the Information Tribunal handed down a judgment concerning another aspect of police surveillance, namely the automatic number-plate recognition (ANPR) system, which is now in widespread use across Great Britain. In Mathieson v IC & Devon & Cornwall Constabulary (EA/2010/0174), Mr Mathieson, a Guardian journalist, requested disclosure from the Constabulary of the location of all the ANPR cameras within the area of the Devon & Cornwall Constabulary. The Constabulary refused disclosure on an application of ss. 24 (national security) and 31 (prevention of crime) FOIA. The Commissioner upheld the Constabulary’s refusal notice on the basis that the location information was exempt from disclosure under s. 31. Mr Mathieson appealed against the Commissioner’s decision.

At the hearing before the Tribunal, it was conceded on behalf of Mr Mathieson that, on all the evidence, both ss. 24 and 31 were engaged in respect of the location information. The key issue which the Tribunal was called upon to determine was whether the public interest balance nonetheless weighed in favour of disclosure. In summary, the Tribunal held that the use of the ANPR system by the Constabulary inevitably gave rise to serious civil liberty concerns. This was not least because the system indiscriminately recorded the number-plate of every single vehicle passing before the individual cameras, irrespective of whether the vehicles may be being used as part of a criminal enterprise or as a result of individuals innocently and lawfully going about their day to day business. However, it nonetheless went on to find that the public interest balance weighed firmly in favour of maintaining the exemptions. This was because, on all the available evidence, it was clear that revealing the location of the individual cameras within Devon and Cornwall would have enhanced the ability of criminals, including terrorists, effectively to bypass the ANPR system, thus helping them to evade detection and prosecution.

In the course of its decision, the Tribunal held that: ‘there is always likely to be a substantial public interest in maintaining the exemptions we are concerned with, in particular that provided by section 24 which relates to national security’ (§8). It also held that, whilst disclosure of the location information may only have tipped the balance slightly in favour of the criminals, not least because they may in any event have been able to identify the cameras through their own efforts, that was sufficient to result in a situation where the location information must be treated as exempt (§10).

Notably, a separate question was raised during the course of the appeal as to whether the information captured by the ANPR system amounted to ‘personal data’ in the hands of the Constabulary. Mr Mathieson and the Commissioner submitted that it did. The Constabulary disputed this conclusion. Ultimately, the Tribunal took the view that it did not need to resolve this dispute for the purposes of determining the appeal.

I am limited in what I can say about this case, having appeared on behalf of the Commissioner. However, it is clear from the judgment that there is an abiding issue as to the legality of the ANPR system and, in particular, whether it unjustifiably interferes with the right to privacy under Article 8 and/or with the data subject’s rights under the DPA. Whilst this is a nettle which the Tribunal itself considered it did not need to grasp in the circumstances of the Mathieson appeal, there can be little doubt but that it is a nettle which will be subject to judicial examination in the future.

Anya Proops

Right to withdraw children from sex education classes

June 1st, 2012 by Robin Hopkins

Under s. 405 of the Education Act 1996, any parent has the right to withdraw a child from sex education at a maintained school up to the age of 19, except to the extent that the subject is covered in a science lesson that forms part of the national curriculum. On 5 November 2009, the Labour government announced that a proposed new bill, the Children Schools and Families Bill would include a provision that would remove a parent’s right of withdrawal once a child had reached the age of 15 years. The next day, the Family Education Trust made a FOIA request for all correspondence, notes and reports on this issue. This was refused. The proposed legislative change was abandoned when the Coalition government came to power in May 2010. The requester made the same request again, seeking only information created prior to May 2010, i.e. under the last government. The Department for Education again refused, continuing to rely on s. 35(1)(a) of FOIA (formulation or development of government policy). The requester’s appeal to the Tribunal concerned the public interest balancing test only. The appeal in Family Education Trust v IC and Department for Education (EA/2011/0244) was dismissed.

Three points are of interest as regards the public interest in maintaining the exemption for the formulation and development of government policy.

First, the appellant argued that there had been a lack of transparency about this decision. The Tribunal thought this a valid type of argument in general: it could “envisage cases in which public dissatisfaction with the rigour or comprehensiveness of a public consultation may add weight to the public interest in having information disclosed”. This did not, however, have purchase on the facts of this case.

Secondly, what of the fact that the relevant provision had been abandoned during the “wash up” of outstanding legislative business immediately before the May 2010 election? The appellant said this meant no ‘safe space’ was then needed, as policy development on this issue was no longer live (this was raised as a public interest argument, but it seems to me it could equally well be an argument against the engagement of s. 35(1)(a) in the first place). Again, on the facts this point did not have force, as the issue remained live after the election. The Tribunal did, however, add this note of caution:

“It does not follow, from our conclusion on this aspect of the case, that the period during which the “safe space” must be protected will be without limit. Some elements of the public debate on sex and relationship education may be perennially controversial but, in the event of a further information request being made at any time in the future, it will be necessary for the Department to consider the state of policy development at that time.”

Thirdly, the Department also argued that there was a public interest in protecting from disclosure contributions made by those consulted on policy matters in this area. The Tribunal gave this factor less weight, “in that those submitting views with the intention of influencing policy decisions by government should in most cases accept that the consultation process will be conducted in public view. We nevertheless accept that a degree of protection may be required in the context of a particularly contentious issue, such as the right of withdrawal and that, had we been inclined to order to disclosure generally, it might have been appropriate to make special provision for some elements of the consultation process.”

Robin Hopkins