In a paper which I delivered at the 11KBW Information Law seminar in May 2010, I identified a number of tips designed to assist parties in preparing for hearings before the information tribunal – the paper can be found here. Very recently, the tribunal has handed down a decision which highlights the dangers to a public authority if it fails to ensure that any witness statements generated for the purposes of the tribunal hearing are sufficiently full and illuminating: Metropolitan Police Service v IC (EA/2010/0006).

The MPS case involved a request made to the MPS for disclosure of information as to how much money Croydon Police had spent on paying informants in the preceding three years. The MPS refused disclosure of the requested information relying on a range of exemptions, including s. 30 (criminal investigations) and s. 31 (law enforcement). The Commissioner upheld the applicant’s complaint against the refusal notice. In the course of the appeal to the tribunal, the MPS produced witness statements in support of its case on appeal. However, as it happened, the significant evidence given by these witnesses was only obtained through the process of cross-examination. The tribunal voiced serious concerns about the fact that the MPS had not included such evidence in its witness statements (which had been exchanged some time before the hearing) but had, instead, effectively ambushed the Commissioner by giving such evidence orally at the hearing. The tribunal noted that this was not the first time the MPS had adopted such a course in proceedings before the tribunal and that ‘there may be cost consequences for the MPS in future cases’ (see paragraphs 16-17). What this judgment highlights is the importance of generating witness statements which contain, so far as possible, the core evidential points upon which the authority wishes to rely in advancing its case. If parts of the evidence are highly sensitive, this does not justify withholding the evidence. Instead, it merely means that the authority should structure the witness statements so that any sensitive, confidential elements are dealt with in the closed statements (which are then considered in closed session.

The tribunal went on to hold that the disputed information was in fact exempt from disclosure under s 24 (the national security exemption – as to which see my earlier post below). The point to be noted here is that the case may never have come before the tribunal had the MPS: (a) identified that s. 24 was in issue at a much earlier stage; and (b) been full and frank with the Commissioner as to the reasons why the information was exempt under s. 24. 11KBW’s Ben Hooper was instructed on behalf of the Commissioner.