Court of Appeal Gives Judgment in Ofcom Case

On 20 February 2009, judgment was handed down in the case of Office of Communications v Information Commissioner [2009] EWCA Civ 90. This is the first case under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR) to be heard by the Court of Appeal. The Information Commissioner was represented by Akhlaq Choudhury of 11KBW. This is an important judgment affecting the general approach to the public interest test in determining whether information under the EIR should be disclosed. The judgment is also relevant to the application of the public interest test under FOIA. The case concerned a request made to Ofcom (the regulatory body for radio communications) for the disclosure of information as to the location of mobile phone masts, and in particular for that information to be disclosed in a format that would enable the requester to manipulate the underlying data using data-handling applications. Ofcom resisted disclosure on the basis that it would prejudice (a) public safety (by identifying mast locations to criminals) and (b) the intellectual property rights of the Mobile Network Operators (such rights being the database rights in the information). The Information Tribunal considered that there was a strong public interest in disclosure given, amongst other matters, the benefit to epidemiological research as to the effects of mobile phone mast radiation on the health of the public. The Tribunal considered that it was entitled to take that public interest into account notwithstanding the fact that such research would be likely to involve an infringement of database rights. In addressing the public interest balance, the Tribunal took the then well-established course of separately weighing the public interest in maintaining each of the exceptions relied upon against the public interest in disclosure. It did not aggregate all the public interest factors against disclosure. The Tribunal found that the public interest balance favoured disclosure.

On the general point of principle, namely the approach to be taken in weighing the public interest in maintaining the exemption against the public interest in disclosure, the Court of Appeal disagreed with the Tribunal’s approach. The Court held that the public interest in maintaining each exemption should be aggregated and weighed against the public interest in disclosure. An exemption-by-exemption approach was still permissible provided that the matter is also looked at in the round at the end of the process by considering whether the aggregate public interest in maintaining the applicable exemptions outweighs the public interest in disclosure. However, the Court upheld the Tribunal’s’ approach in taking into account a factor as supporting the public interest in disclosure even where that factor involves a breach of third party intellectual property rights. The Court held that the legislative scheme is such that it is permissible to take such factors into account as an aspect of the public interest in disclosure. The matter was remitted to the Tribunal to reconsider the public interest balance in accordance with the approach laid down by the Court.