Update on recent Tribunal decisions part 4: qualified exemptions and the public interest

November 13th, 2012 by Robin Hopkins

In the final part of our round-up of recent decisions of the First-Tier Tribunal, Panopticon looks at the qualified exemptions, the public interest and a few other loose ends.

Section 36: Cherie Booth, Ryanair and Council emails

Sutton v IC and Nottingham City Council (EA/2012/0044) concerned the Council’s decision to amend its internal ‘sign off’ procedures for responses to FOIA requests, following an incident in which its response to a request about the cost of Councillors’ refreshments was considered to have been inadvertently misleading and lacking in context. The requester asked for internal emails about the proposed change. The Council withheld some of those emails, contending that they contained the sort of robust, free and frank exchange of views for which a safe decision-making space was needed. In a decision which many local authorities will find heartening, the Tribunal agreed.

The background to Sittampalam v IC and Ministry of Justice (EA/2011/0277) is the comments made by Cherie Booth QC, sitting as a recorder, when sentencing a Muslim defendant. Her comments appeared to suggest that his faith was a mitigating factor in his defence. They caused a stir, were reported in the media and attracted complaints, including by the National Secular Society, to the Office for Judicial Complaints. The OJC concluded that Ms Booth’s comments did not constitute judicial misconduct, though she was to receive “informal advice” on the issue.

A request under FOIA was made for all information about this OJC investigation and any action taken. The public authority relied on s. 36 – prejudice to the free and frank exchange of views, provision of advice or conduct of public affairs. The ‘reasonable opinion of the qualified person’ (the prerequisite for engaging s. 36) was obtained after the public authority’s holding reply to the request and after the statutory time for compliance – but before the public authority’s formal notice of refusal. The Tribunal rejected the requester’s contention that s. 36 was not engaged because of the timing of the opinion. As to the public interest, the Tribunal was satisfied us that the requester’s suspicions about the OJC ‘covering up’ the complaint or trying to minimise the impact of its conclusions on account of Ms Booth being the wife of Tony Blair were unfounded. Nor were the OJC’s press statements inconsistent with its letters to the National Secular Society. The appeal was dismsised.

Whereas alleged ‘late reliance’ on s. 36 succeeded in Sittampalam, it was unsuccessful before the Tribunal (at the preliminary hearing stage) in Ryanair v IC and Office of Fair Trading (EA/2012/0088). The opinion was obtained prior to the internal review. The Tribunal concluded that:

“Considering issues of reasonableness it is difficult for the Tribunal to be satisfied that the section 36 opinion of the qualified person – given its timing in respect of this appeal – is not an ex post facto conclusion or, more accurately, not tainted with the perception that that could be the case. That goes to the heart of its reasonableness.”

Sections 41 and 43: casinos and vikings

London Borough of Newham v IC (EA/2011/0288) concerned the Council’s award of the licence to operate a large casino at Westfield shopping centre in Stratford. The requester, a law firm acting on behalf of the unsuccessful bidder, made a request under FOIA for documents relating to the successful bid. The Council withheld some of those, relying on s. 44 (statutory bar on disclosure under the Code of Practice for the Gambling Act 2005), s. 41 (information obtained in confidence) and s. 43 (prejudice to commercial interests). The Commissioner was unpersuaded and ordered disclosure.

The Council’s appeal was partially upheld and partially dismissed. The statutory bar was held not to extend beyond the conclusion of the tender process. S. 43(2) was engaged, with the public interest favouring disclosure of some (relating for example to security arrangements and the financial guarantee offered by the winning bidder, as well as records of some of the negotiation discussions, which the Tribunal found would be unsurprising to any commercial rival) but not others (tender details which were deemed more commercially sensitive). Similarly, s. 41 succeeded for some information but not all (some, for example, was effectively in the public domain; some had not been obtained from outside the Council). Bidders could reasonably expect confidentiality not permanently, but for a reasonable time following the bidding process – here the request was made within that reasonable time, which counted in the Council’s favour.

The disputed information in Pim v IC and Down DC (EA/2012/0078) was a business plan submitted by the Magnus Viking Association in respect of their proposed Viking re-enactment centre, and correspondence between the Council and Magnus. The Council relied on regulation 12(5)(e) of the EIR (confidentiality of commercial or industrial information where such confidentiality is provided by law to protect a legitimate economic interest). The Commissioner and Tribunal agreed: extensive research and consultation had gone into the specialist information, which could be used by Magnus’ competitors in a viking re-enactment market which, while not flooded with competition, was growing. There was a strong interest in maintaining trust between the commercial parties.

Prejudice to the course of justice

In McCullough v IC and Northern Ireland Water (EA/2012/0082), the requester sought detailed technical information about vibrations measurements relating to sewer upgrade works in Belfast. The Commissioner agreed with the public authority that regulation 12(5)(b) of the EIR (adverse effects on the course of justice) was engaged and that the public interest favoured its maintenance. A key issue was that disclosure, it was argued, would prejudice NI Water’s position when defending prospective legal claims about the sewer works vibrations, including by the requester (though there was a dispute as to whether the requester did in fact intend such proceedings).

The Tribunal disagreed. It was “not persuaded that purely factual information such as this could ever adversely affect the course of justice” and did “not accept that early disclosure of this technical information would prejudice NI Water in any way that they would not be prejudiced in the normal course of discovery in litigation by such information”. Regulation 12(5)(b) was therefore not engaged, in the Tribunal’s view.

It also did not think that information could be withheld just because of potential prejudice to a public authority’s litigation position: “The implications of implementing such a policy could, in some circumstances amount to a cover up, and in our view would be contrary to the spirit and intent of the FOIA and EIR legislation and further, contrary to the public interest. We are of the view that it is in the public interest that justice is done and that the correct result emerges from litigation, not that a public authority should necessarily be successful, just because it is a public authority.” The exact meaning of these last words is not clear, but the decision will nonetheless raise many a public authority eyebrow.

Robin Hopkins