The Tribunal’s first decision in the case of Alasdair Roberts v IC and Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (EA/2009/0035) established the controversial principle that the s. 36 exemption only applies where the opinion of the ‘qualified person’ was reached by the time the request was responded to: see Anya Proops’ post on that decision. DBIS was therefore not entitled to rely on s. 36 in refusing Mr Roberts’ request. Its refusal was, however, upheld in the Tribunal’s second decision in this case, which provides the latest word on the s. 40 ‘personal data’ exemption.


In particular, this case concerned the first data protection principle (processing must be fair and lawful and meet a Schedule 2 condition) and paragraph 6(1) of Schedule 2 to the DPA 1998. That condition is that “the processing is necessary for the purposes of legitimate interests pursued by the data controller or by the third party or parties to whom the data are disclosed, except where the processing is unwarranted in any particular case by reason of prejudice to the rights and freedoms or legitimate interests of the data subject”.


Two notable points about the application of this principle emerge.


First – on whether the processing would be fair – senior civil servants (Grade 5 or above) do not have a reasonable expectation of anonymity in respect of any document, no matter how sensitive. More junior civil servants might have reasonable expectations: this will be less cogent where the job is “public-facing” (such as a Job Centre manager), and more cogent where the information is controversial (such as information about animal testing).


Secondly – on legitimate interests of ‘parties to whom the data are disclosed’ – the Tribunal found that the requester’s strong individual interest (for research purposes) was not sufficient to override the fact that this information was of very little interest to the world at large (to whom disclosure is, in the eyes of FOIA, to be made).


This decision also offers further guidance on what can be included within the ‘cost of compliance’ for s. 12 purposes. The Tribunal accepted the established principle that costs of redacting names are to be excluded, but qualified this as follows: “that may be appropriate where the task is simply to locate individuals’ names and redact them… but where, as here, the process requires a judgment to be made, document by document, balancing the various criteria we have identified, then we believe that much, if not all, of the process should be regarded as retrieving from each document the information which requires to be disclosed and therefore properly included in the cost estimate”.