Public access to local authority information: transparency with teeth

November 20th, 2014 by Robin Hopkins

The Freedom of Information Act and Environmental Information Regulations are the dominant statutory regimes for public transparency, but they are of course not the only ones. A good example is the regime under the Local Government Act 1972 (as amended), particularly sections 100A-K. Those provisions govern public access to local authority meetings, as well as the public availability of minutes, reports, background documents and so on for such meetings, subject to provisions for exempt information (Schedule 12A).

A recent judgment of the Admin Court (Cranston J) in a planning matter, Joicey v Northumberland County Council [2014] EWHC 3657 (Admin) illustrates the importance of compliance with that regime for public access to information.

The claimant challenged the local authority’s grant of planning permission for a wind turbine. One of his grounds was its failure to make available the noise assessment report which had been considered in the granting of permission, contrary to the provisions of the 1972 Act referred to above, and also in breach of the council’s Statement of Community Involvement.

The Council had argued that the report, being on its files, was duly available. Cranston J disagreed: “it was not open to inspection by members of the public since the files were in such a state that the duty officer on 1 November fetched what must have been a Brackenside file, but not one with the report. If the Council cannot organize its files in a way which means the duty officer is able to produce a particular report within a reasonably practicable time the report is not available” (paragraph 44). This is a compelling warning to public authorities to make sure relevant information is properly (rather than technically or hypothetically) available where required.

Here is an important passage from Cranston J’s judgment about the practical and democratic value of transparency (paragraph 47):

“… Right to know provisions relevant to the taking of a decision such as those in the 1972 Act and the Council’s Statement of Community Involvement require timely publication. Information must be published by the public authority in good time for members of the public to be able to digest it and make intelligent representations: cf. R v North and East Devon Health Authority Ex p. Coughlan [2001] Q.B. 213, [108]; R (on the application of Moseley) (in substitution of Stirling Deceased) v Haringey LBC [2014] UKSC 56, [25]. The very purpose of a legal obligation conferring a right to know is to put members of the public in a position where they can make sensible contributions to democratic decision-making. In practice whether the publication of the information is timely will turn on factors such as its character (easily digested/technical), the audience (sophisticated/ ordinary members of the public) and its bearing on the decision (tangential/ central)”.

Here, the dense and technical report had not been made available with sufficient time for it to be digested acted upon.

Cranston J was also clear that, had the information been made properly available, it could have made a real difference. Officers could have been prompted to rethink certain points, and decision-makers could well have been swayed: the decision was made by “a committee of politicians where the vote was not whipped. It is a very bold person who will hazard that in such circumstances a particular result is inevitable”.

Relief was therefore appropriate: “the claimant will be entitled to relief unless the decision-maker can demonstrate that the decision it took would inevitably have been the same had it complied with its statutory obligation to disclose information in a timely fashion” (paragraph 51).

The Council’s decision was therefore quashed on the transparency ground (among others). See paragraph 59:

“Here the claimant had standing to challenge a decision of his local Council. By denying him timely access to information to which he was entitled it limited his full participation in democratic decision-making. The fact that he might not be immediately affected by the proposal where he lives is not a sufficient reason to deny him the remedy he seeks. This was a serious breach by the Council of its statutory obligations. An additional factor bearing on the exercise of discretion in this case is the Council’s own behaviour in the back-dating of the website to when the WSP noise assessment was available to it. Although it did not have any consequences in the circumstances of this case, it had the potential to mislead members of the public about their right to know and to use the information disclosed. In all there is no reason to deny the claimant his remedy.”

The case is a powerful illustration of the practical value of transparency and public participation, and of how failure to comply with laws aimed at those ends can really bite.

Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin

 

The Prince Charles veto: JR fails due to availability of JR

July 10th, 2013 by Robin Hopkins

As Chris Knight reported this morning, judgment has been handed down in R (Evans) v HM Attorney General [2013] 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.

Postscript:

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.

Robin Hopkins

 

JUDICIAL REVIEW AND THE DPA: PATIENT’S CONSENT VITAL

November 7th, 2011 by Robin Hopkins

The Court of Appeal last week gave judgment in R (on the application of TA) v North East London NHS Trust (not yet reported or publicly available). The case is an interesting illustration of (a) the Data Protection Act 1998 being used as a ‘shield’ in an application for judicial review, and (b) the vital importance of patient consent in the use of medical records.

TA was engaged in family court proceedings with his ex-wife concerning custody of their children. Part of her evidence in support of her suitability to care for the children was the report of a psychiatrist at the defendant NHS Trust. According to that report, TA’s ex-wife did not suffer from a mental health disorder. TA complained to the Trust about this report. It refused to investigate the refusal because to do so would require it to access his ex-wife’s medical records. She had refused her consent to that access, and the Trust’s position was therefore that it could not investigate TA’s complaint without breaching the data protection principles in its processing of his ex-wife’s (sensitive) personal data. TA’s application for judicial review of the Trust’s refusal failed. So too did his appeal to the Court of Appeal.

Robin Hopkins

 

Launch of Information Law Reports

July 19th, 2011 by Rachel Kamm

 The Information Law Reports launched on 14 July 2011, with the following announcement on 11KBW’s website:

Leading chambers 11KBW and legal publisher Justis Publishing are collaborating in a first for both organisations: the creation of a new series of law reports available both in bound volumes from next week and on the established Justis platform from this morning.

Information law is ever more important, seeking to balance the “right to know” and the “right to be left alone” in an age of massive databases and global information flows. We all want to protect our own privacy; but we also want to understand how public authorities make decisions and spend our money. This new series will help professionals grapple with these issues.

Timothy Pitt-Payne QC, a barrister at 11KBW and one of the editors of the new reports, said: “There is a growing case-law, generated by the specialist Information Rights Tribunal and the higher courts. Navigating this material and quickly identifying the most important recent developments is increasingly challenging. The Information Law Reports seek to meet this need, bringing together all the most important cases in a single source. 11KBW are delighted to be working with Justis on this much-needed project.

Masoud Gerami, Managing Director of Justis Publishing, said: “We have had a number of significant milestones in our 25-year history, mostly associated with innovation and developments which have changed legal information dissemination for the better. I am delighted that another milestone has been added to our list of achievements by producing the new series of Information Law Reports in association with 11KBW, the leaders in this increasingly important field. I believe that the complementary nature of the expertise from the partners in this project is the ideal requirement for any successful product or service, and we look forward to a continued relationship with 11KBW.”

He added: “This is also the first time that Justis Publishing has produced a product in hard copy, and we are very excited about the possibilities that the combination of hard copy and online versions will present.

For further information, please call +44 (0)20 7267 8989 or email press@justis.com.

 

Judicially Reviewing the Information Rights Tribunal

June 22nd, 2011 by Christopher Knight

The Supreme Court today handed down its long-awaited (at least by some) judgment in R (Cart) v The Upper Tribunal [2011] UKSC 28. The case concerns the circumstances in which the ordinary courts will entertain an application to judicially review a decision of the First-Tier or Upper Tribunals. Although the case did not directly involve a challenge to the Information Rights division of the Tribunals, the judgment is of general application.

The Upper Tribunal is a “superior court of record” by virtue of section 3(5) of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007. Under section 13, there is a right of appeal to the Court of Appeal from the Upper Tribunal, subject to permission being granted by either body, unless the decision falls within the category of excluded decisions. The most generally relevant excluded decision is a refusal of permission to appeal from the First-Tier Tribunal to the Upper Tribunal by the Upper Tribunal. Where permission is refused that is, in the eyes of the 2007 Act structure, the end of the line. Unless one can judicially review the decision to refuse permission.

The Divisional Court roundly rejected the argument that the designation of the Upper Tribunal as a superior court of record rendered it immune from judicial review ([2009] EWHC 3052 (Admin); [2010] 2 WLR 1012) and the absolutist position was not resurrected on appeal. The Court of Appeal agreed with the Divisional Court that judicial review should be available only in circumscribed cases ([2010] EWCA Civ 859; [2011] 2 WLR 36). The Supreme Court unanimously dismissed the appeal, but for different reasons.

The leading judgment of the Supreme Court was given by Lady Hale, with whom the rest of their Lordships more or less completely agreed, albeit in their own words. Rejecting the application of an unrestricted judical review jurisdiction over all decisions in the Tribunal structure, and the application of an exceptional circumstances test limited to an excess of jurisdiction and denial of fundamental justice, the Court settled on a more easily described approach. Where an application is made for judicial review of a Tribunal decision the High Court should apply the second appeals criteria, namely that (a) the proposed case would raise some important point of principle or practice, or (b) there is some other compelling reason for the court to hear the case.

It was considered by Lady Hale and the other members of the Court that this test was a proportionate and rational restriction on the availability of judicial review which nonetheless recognised the importance of correcting errors in the Tribunal’s case load. The exceptionality test would have been too narrow, and applying judicial review without limitation would have lead to the courts being swamped with applications in respect of a system designed to make the process easier, quicker and cheaper (especially in the light of its application to immigration and asylum cases).

Interestingly, there were a number of comments from Lady Hale, Lord Phillips, Lord Clarke and Lord Dyson to the effect that the situation would be made clearer by an amendment to the CPR remove the potential four stages of judicial review permission applications in these quasi-second appeal cases. Whether the Rules Committee is paying attention remains to be seen.

The upshot of the decision in Cart is that if the Upper Tribunal refuses permission to appeal to it, that decision can be judicially reviewed, but only on the restrictive second appeals criteria. The tenor of the judgments as a whole do not provide much appetite for leave to be readily granted, and in both cases under appeal the Supreme Court roundly rejected their compliance with the second appeal test.

For those reading north of the border, the Supreme Court applied the same approach to the Tribunal structure in Scotland in Eba v Advocate General for Scotland [2011] UKSC 29.

 

TWO HIGH COURT ‘PERSONAL DATA’ JUDGMENTS: DIGITAL ECONOMY ACT 2010 AND ABORTION STATISTICS

April 20th, 2011 by Robin Hopkins

The High Court has today handed down two judgments of some significance in the context of personal data.

This morning, Kenneth Parker J gave judgment in the application brought by BT and TalkTalk for judicial review of the Digital Economy Act 2010 (on which, see my earlier discussion here). The Act seeks to combat illegal file-sharing by allowing copyright owners to detect apparently unlawful online activity and report it to the suspect’s internet service provider, who must then warn the suspect against repeat infringements. The claimants contended, among other things, that this regime breached EU data protection law. Their claim failed on this and three other grounds, succeeding only with their fifth ground, which contended that internet service providers should not have to foot 25% of the bill for the regime imposed by the Act. Read the DCMS’ press release here.

This afternoon, Cranston J gave judgment in the “abortion statistics” appeal (on which, see my earlier Panopticon post here). The Information Tribunal had upheld the Commissioner’s decision to order disclosure of “low cell count” statistics as to the number of abortions carried out on specified grounds. Argument had focused on the risk of doctors, and in particular patients being identified. The Department of Health’s appeal to the High Court was dismissed. The judgment represents a notable development in jurisprudence on personal data.

More analysis to follow when these judgments are made available.