‘Meta-requests’ and Late Exemptions – High Court Judgment

In Home Office & Ministry of Justice v IC (EA/2008/062), the Information Tribunal held that the Home Office had erred in refusing to disclose information which revealed how internally it had dealt with some 48 FOIA requests which had previously been made by a particular media organisation. In particular, it held that the Home Office had not been entitled to treat that information as exempt under section 36 FOIA (prejudice to public affairs). The High Court has now upheld the Tribunal’s decision on appeal by the Home Office – see Home Office & Ministry of Justice v IC [2009] EWHC 1611 (Admin). Notably, the High Court declined to decide the question of how the Tribunal should respond to a public authority which sought to invoke exemptions for the first time before the Tribunal. The Home Office had sought to argue, contrary to existing Tribunal orthodoxy (see particularly Department for Business and Regulatory Reform v IC & Friends of the Earth (EA/2007/0072)), that the Tribunal had no discretion to refuse late reliance on exemptions and that a public authority was, in effect, automatically entitled to invoke new exemptions at any stage in the process. The Commissioner invited the Court to approve the orthodox position. Keith J held that he ought not to decide this particular issue given that it had effectively become academic on the facts of the appeal.