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.