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


February 10th, 2012 by Robin Hopkins

BNP leader Nick Griffin was convicted in 1998 for publishing material likely to stir up racial hatred. In 2009, Ian Cobain, an investigative journalist at The Guardian, requested sight of all Crown Prosecution Service papers relating to that prosecution. The Commissioner upheld its refusal. In Cobain v IC and Crown Prosecution Service (EA/2011/0112 & 0113), the Tribunal considered 3 exemptions, namely ss. 40(2), 32(1) and 30(1) of FOIA. For the most part, Mr Cobain’s arguments prevailed.

The decision is notable – indeed, essential reading – for a number of its key points. For example: when it comes to journalists requesting sensitive personal data, FOIA is not “applicant blind”. More generally, the decision affirms the importance of FOIA in facilitating investigative journalism. The approach to Article 10 ECHR from the Kennedy “report” is boldly affirmed. General guidance on s. 30(1) is set out. I’ll look at the key points from each exemption in turn. The decision is worth quoting in some detail.

Section 40(2) (personal data)

A number of important points emerge. First, in general, just because information emerged during evidence in a public trial, this does not mean it should automatically be disclosed under FOIA:

“Much of the information… was freely publicised at the trial in 1998… Where the public interest is engaged (as here where s. 30(1)(c) is invoked) it does not by any means automatically follow that such publication in the past determines the question of disclosure today. Most witnesses are entitled to expect that their exposure to public scrutiny ends with the conclusion of their evidence. Those who make statements do so in the expectation that, if not used at trial, they will not surface later.”

Secondly, just because information is in a prosecution file, it does not follow that it is necessarily personal data. The Commissioner was criticised for insufficiently granular analysis:

“It was clear that the broad and unparticularised approach adopted in the First Decision Notice could not be upheld. The fact that it is information held in a file assembled for the purposes of criminal proceedings against Mr. Griffin (see DPA s.2(g)) does not make it sensitive personal data, unless it is personal data in the first place.”

Some of the disputed information was therefore outside s. 40(2) because it was not personal data in the first place. Other information, however, was sensitive personal data. This meant that not only would the usual conditions need to be met (fairness, lawfulness, condition 6(1)) but a Schedule 3 condition was also mandatory. Those can be difficult to meet – unless you are a journalist. Condition 10 triggers the Data Protection (Processing of Sensitive Personal Data) Order 2000. This contains particular “lawful processing” conditions for the purposes of, among other things, journalism: see article 3 of the Order, which also imposes other conditions such as the disclosure being in the “substantial public interest” and “in connection with” issues such as “the commission of an unlawful act”. Paragraphs 31-33 of the Tribunal’s decision contain a useful summary of how the relevant provisions work.

This “journalist’s route” (my term, rather than the Tribunal’s) to obtaining sensitive personal data has been considered in a number of Tribunal decisions. In this case, it was given full effect:

 “Disclosure of the sensitive data would be “in connection with” the commission of an unlawful act (hence the conviction), seriously improper conduct and arguably Mr. Griffin`s unfitness for political office. It would be for the purpose of journalism, Mr. Cobain`s occupation, and would be intended for publication in his newspaper and possibly thereafter, in a book. Given the issues involved, namely racial and/or religious hatred and the right to express even extreme views, we find that disclosure would be in the substantial public interest. We do not consider that the passage of eleven years before the request renders disclosure unfair, or unwarranted by reason of prejudice to Mr. Griffin`s interests nor likely to cause substantial damage or distress to him. In making that judgement we have regard to Mr. Griffin`s age ( 50 at the date of the request, 39 at the date of trial), his continuing political prominence and his apparent claim to be an educated, reasonable and responsible MEP and party leader who has rejected any racial extremism formerly associated with his party.”

How does this “journalist’s route” square with the usual “applicant blindness” FOIA principle? The ICO argued that the latter prevails, such that the former only applies to pure DPA cases, not to FOIA ones. It emphasized the wording of s. 40(3)(a): disclosure to “a member of the public otherwise than under [FOIA]”. It argued that the average member of the public is the reference point for a FOIA disclosure. The average member of the public is not a journalist. The “journalist’s route” therefore has no place in FOIA.

The Tribunal disagreed (as the First-Tier Tribunal has done on a number of occasions now). It relied on the Upper Tribunal’s judgment in the APPGER case on this point, and said that:

 “… a requester who fulfils one or more of the schedule conditions is also a member of the public ( and is not the data processor ) who is receiving the information under FOIA. If this were not so, FOIA would be a valueless tool for the serious researcher, journalist, writer, politician or scholar seeking to investigate serious wrongdoing within the preceding thirty years. If that were the case, it would be reasonable to ask whether FOIA was worth enactment.”

The effect in this case was that s. 40(2) did not apply at all.

Section 32 (court records)

Next, the CPS relied on s. 32, the ambiguous wording of which has opened the door for Article 10 ECHR arguments: see the Kennedy v Charity litigation (Panopticon passim) in which the First-Tier Tribunal’s “report” on the application and effect of Article 10 on s. 32 will be considered by the Court of Appeal later this month. The Tribunal in Cobain wholeheartedly adopted the Kennedy report:

“We adopt with gratitude and respect the very careful reasoning of the report on this issue, which we believe accurately states the law as to Article 10 as recently developed… We do not doubt that s. 32(1) can be read down in a way which is consistent with Article 10. We consider that limiting the restriction in [s. 32(1)] so that it ends once a reasonable time has elapsed after the exhaustion or evident abandonment of the available appeal process would avoid a breach of Article 10.”

Consequently, s. 32 was not available as a ground for refusal in this case.

The Article 10 issue is obviously of enormous importance to the interpretation of FOIA – particularly, but not exclusively for journalists. As things stand, the role of Article 10 is uncertain. At least two other First-Tier Tribunals have heard or will hear argument on it this month (in the contexts of ss. 23, 40(2) and 41); the Court of Appeal will consider it in two cases this month, and the Supreme Court gives judgment in Sugar v BBC next week. Watch this space.

Section 30(1) (investigations)

In the context of this case, this exemption was “unarguably” engaged. The Tribunal made the following observations about the public interest in maintaining this exemption:

“The Tribunal acknowledges the substantial public interest in many circumstances in protecting from disclosure information gathered for the purposes of a criminal case, including the need to offer informants and witnesses protection from public exposure and a prosecuting authority a proper space in which to discuss and decide issues that arise.”

As against that, it said this about the public interest in disclosure:

“On the other hand, the public has a legitimate interest in criminal investigations and resulting court proceedings, especially where the defendant was a prominent political figure charged with an offence of great current importance in proceedings that he was keen to publicise. The passage of time is also a consideration. Legitimate public interest in such a case continues due to the profile of the defendant but the risk of any impact on the resulting proceedings disappeared long ago. More importantly, the relevant information in this appeal does not include statements from potentially vulnerable witnesses or highly sensitive material”.

The Tribunal therefore concluded that, in general, the public interest favoured the disclosure of the disputed information in this case, except for three categories which could properly be withheld.

On s. 30(1), this decision is a useful summary of the most relevant considerations. It is on ss. 40(2) and Article 10, however, that it has given a fresh boost to requesters.

Robin Hopkins


July 19th, 2011 by Robin Hopkins

The Tribunal’s recent decision in Marriott v IC and Metropolitan Police (EA/2010/0183) saw the Tribunal consider registers and ledgers of policing information from the late Victorian period – some of which, the requester contended, related to the “Jack the Ripper” investigations. The Tribunal was unanimous that section 30(2)(a) FOIA (information obtained or recorded for the purposes of functions relating to investigations or criminal proceedings etc) was engaged. It decided by a majority that the public interest favoured the maintenance of that exemption. I say no more about the case, given my involvement. David Higgerson’s blog, however, comments on the application of FOIA to very old information here.


June 7th, 2011 by Rachel Kamm

In Jeffery Lampert v IC and Financial Services Authority EA/2010/0203, the appellant was involved in a long running dispute with a bank, which had called on his guarantee of a loan and commenced bankruptcy proceedings against him. His MP had raised the matter with the FSA and the appellant believed that this had led to at least one investigation of the bank. The appellant subsequently made a freedom of information request for information held by the FSA recording the outcome of investigations into the bank about the matter and the calculation of the bank’s loss. The Information Commissioner found that any information falling within the scope of the request was the appllant’s personal data and therefore absolutely exempt from disclosure under FOIA. The First-Tier Tribunal found that:

  • there had been no investigation by the FSA of the bank and there was no document in existence which contained a calculation of the bank’s loss;
  • any information falling within the scope of the request would not have been the appellant’s personal data; applying Durantthe Commissioner was wrong to decide, in effect, that, merely because the information requested arose from the appellant’s complaints, it all constituted his personal data;
  • the FSA was entitled to rely on section 14(1) FOIA, in that this was a repeat request and a reasonable interval had not elapsed since the previous substantially similar request; and, further
  • there was ample material from which it could be found that the appellant’s request was vexatious.

In Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland v IC and John Collins EA/2010/0109, Mr Collins requested the PPS documentation (excluding names and addresses) relating to a particular criminal damage case. It was not in dispute that section 30(1) FOIA was engaged and the only issue for the First-Tier Tribunal was whether the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighed the public interest in disclosure. The Tribunal accepted that it had to take into account the need for prosecutors to have a safe space in which to decide whether or not a case met the threshold for pursuing a prosecution, without fear of frank assessments being publicised after the event. Eroding this safe space would undermine the independence of prosecution authorities, compromise the quality of decision making, potentially deter witnesses from co-operating and undermine (without good reason) public confidence in those authorities. The Tribunal held that these factors attracted very substantial weight. The Tribunal found, having considered the disputed information, that there was no reason to suspect that the prosecuting authority had made substantial mistakes in this case. The public interest in maintaining the exemption therefore clearly outweighed the public interest in disclosure.


November 4th, 2010 by Robin Hopkins

Wendy Alexander MSP became leader of the Labour Party group in the Scottish Parliament in September 2007. In the course of her leadership election campaign, someone in her team recorded a donation of £950 as coming from a domestically-based company, whereas it in fact came (unlawfully) from an overseas-based individual. The Electoral Commission investigated two potential criminal offences that arose under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. In February 2008, it issued what the Information Tribunal described as a “meagre statement”. It said that there was insufficient evidence of an offence under section 61 (knowingly facilitating, concealing or disguising an impermissible donation), but it acknowledged – implicitly – that an offence under section 56(3) (failure to return an impermissible donation within 30 days). Nonetheless, the case was not referred to the Procurator Fiscal. Many were dissatisfied with the investigation.


The requester in this case sought further information. Answers to a number of his questions were withheld. The Tribunal in Ferguson v IC and The Electoral Commission (EA/2010/0085) has today handed down a decision which is notable both for its commentary on the interaction between personal data and the inherent publicity of political life, and for a number of distinctions it draws between types of information which, at first glance, may appear to be personal.


Broadly, there were two types of question in dispute. One type sought the names of those who provided the Electoral Commission with answers to certain questions. Applying Durant, the Tribunal held that this was not personal data. Even if it were personal data, a Schedule 2 condition would be met, and the processing would be lawful and fair because there was no indication that interviewees had an expectation of confidentiality. The Tribunal emphasised that fairness does involve a balance of competing interests. Section 30(1) was engaged, but the public interest favoured disclosure. Here the Tribunal rejected the submission that disclosure would undermine voluntary co-operation with the Electoral Commission’s investigations: “politicians and their supporters have strong incentives to co-operate with the Commission”.


The second type was about who had misrecorded the donation and why. This was held to be sensitive personal data. The Tribunal cautioned against generalising about FOIA being purpose-blind: an applicant’s identity and motives may sometimes shed light on the public interests involved, and on whether conditions from Schedules 2 and 3 are met. In this case, however, a Schedule 3 condition was not met: the Tribunal was not persuaded that, at the relevant time, the answers the appellant sought were necessary for him to obtain legal advice on a possible application for judicial review of the Electoral Commission.


The Tribunal remarked that the appellant would have had a “strongly arguable case” under condition 6(1) of Schedule 2, and made a number of observations on fairness. It commented that “politics is an inherently public activity. The extent and manner of compliance with the rules should be expected to be subject to public scrutiny”. The Tribunal did, however, distinguish between the section 56 offence (implicit finding of guilt) and the section 61 offence (explicit finding of insufficient evidence). Disclosure concerning the former would not be unfair: Ms Alexander “would be well able to say in mitigation anything that she wished by making public statements, as any serious politician would”. Disclosure concerning the latter would be unfair: it “would risk placing the data subjects under a cloud of suspicion, in circumstances where there might be no definitive termination of speculation and where, as a result, undue distress would be likely to ensue”.


Recent ICO decisions on Freedom of Information

April 8th, 2009 by Amy Rogers

In Decision Notice FS50139215, issued this week, the Commissioner has ordered the Met Police to disclose particular CCTV footage showing the movements of the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks on London on 7 July 2005.

The Met had argued that the footage was exempt from disclosure under sections 30(1)(a) (information held for the purposes of an investigation) and 38(1)(a) (health and safety) of FOIA.

The Commissioner accepted that the exemption in section 30(1)(a)(i) and (ii) of FOIA was engaged. However, he rejected arguments that such disclosure would render meaningful police investigation impossible and that, pending any trial, the CCTV footage should only be disclosed to the CPS, the Courts or other bodies involved in the investigative process.

The Commissioner’s comments on the public interest in full disclosure of any material relating to the 7/7 bombings are of particular interest. He noted, for example, that whilst there had already been widespread media coverage in relation to the bombings, “full disclosure in order to avoid any suspicion of ‘spin’ or ‘cover up’ will continue to be in the public interest regardless of the volume of related information that has previously been disclosed”. On similar lines, he observed that in circumstances in which the 7/7 attacks had been the subject of conspiracy theories, the fact that “disclosure would presumably support the official account of the time line and basic facts of the attacks and reduce any perceived lack of transparency about how this account was formed, along with removing any suspicion of ‘spin’ or ‘cover up’” was a valid public interest factor in favour of disclosure.

The Commissioner rejected the Met’s claim that the exemption under section 38(1)(a) of FOIA (health and safety) was engaged at all, emphasising that the arguments advanced by the Met on this point had lacked detail in relation to the specific CCTV footage in question. He also concluded that, whilst not cited by the Met, the personal data exemption in section 40(2) of FOIA was engaged in respect of footage from which individuals other than the perpetrators of the attacks could be identified. The Met must redact this information, such as by pixellation, before the footage is disclosed.

In other Decision Notices issued this week, the Commissioner has held that:

  • Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester Universities and Kings College and University College, London must disclose information relating to primate research. A complainant had sought such information from a number of universities, including information as to the numbers and species of primates referred to in returns to the Home Office, and as to current research. The Commissioner held that the exemptions relied upon by the universities were not engaged (variously, sections 38 (health and safety), 40 (personal data) and 43 (commercial interests) of FOIA).


  • The Department of Health must disclose civil servants’ submissions to Ministers in relation to proposed variations to consultants’ contracts as part of its ‘modernising medical careers’ initiative. Whilst the exemption in section 35(1)(a) (policy) of FOIA was engaged, the public interest in maintaining the exemption did not outweigh that in disclosure (FS50151464).


  • In contrast, the FCO was entitled to refuse to confirm or deny whether it held particular information as to identification of a voice heard in the video showing the beheading of Ken Bigley in Iraq in 2004. The FCO successfully relied upon sections 23(5) (information supplied by or relating to the security services) and 24(2) (national security) of FOIA (FS50188323).