July 12th, 2010

Section 36(2) FOIA provides for a number of qualified exemptions, all of which are essentially designed to ensure that disclosures under FOIA do not unduly prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs. The exemptions provided for under section 36(2) are somewhat unusual in that the question whether they are engaged turns upon whether a ‘qualified person’ has given a ‘reasonable opinion’ that disclosure of the particular information would or would be likely to prejudice or inhibit one of the particular matters provided for under s. 36(2) (e.g. it would inhibit the free and frank provision of advice or the free and frank exchange of views). In other words, it is the creation of the reasonable opinion which itself operates to engage the particular s. 36(2) exemption.

The application of s. 36(2) has caused some difficulties in practice. In particular, difficulties have arisen where the public authority has sought to rely on s. 36(2) in circumstances where the reasonable opinion was not in fact generated until sometime after the request was refused by the public authority. In the case of Roberts v IC (EA/2009/0035), the tribunal held that s. 36(2) will not be engaged in these circumstances. This is because, if the information was not in fact exempt at the time the refusal notice was sent out (i.e. because the relevant reasonable opinion was not in existence at that time), it cannot be rendered exempt ex post facto (i.e. as a result of a reasonable opinion having been created after the request has been responded to). See further my paper which examines the Roberts judgment which you can find here.

The restrictive approach to s. 36(2) adopted in Roberts has recently been approved in the case of Chief Constable of Surrey Police v IC (EA/2009/0081). Interestingly, the tribunal in this case went on to highlight the significant dangers for a public authority if it fails to keep a record of the opinion as and when it is reached. Following an earlier decision in University of Central Lancashire v IC (EA/2009/0034), the tribunal in the Chief Constable case effectively held that a public authority will struggle to rely on the exemptions afforded under s. 36(2): (a) if it does not keep a record of the opinion which has been reached and, further, (b) if, in the context of any record which it has made, it fails to identify the particular sub-sections of s. 36(2) which the qualified person has concluded are engaged. Notably, in reaching this conclusion, the tribunal confirmed that it was not the function of the Commissioner to speculate about or forage around for opinions which might have been reached by the qualified person where there was no good evidence that such opinions had in fact been formed at the time the request was being responded to (see in particular paragraphs 54-59 of the decision). 11KBW’s Akhlaq Choudhury appeared on behalf of the Chief Constable.

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