Last month I blogged on a recent Tribunal decision which considered whether, following Veolia v Nottinghamshire CC  EWCA 1214 (“Veolia”), human rights considerations had a role to play in FOIA/EIR cases involving the potential disclosure of confidential commercial information – see my post on the decision in Staffordshire CC v IC & Sibelco here. This month the Tribunal has promulgated another decision on the issue: see Nottinghamshire CC v IC & Veolia & UK Coal Mining Ltd (EA/2010/0142). The Notts case was concerned with a request for disclosure of particular information contained in a waste management contract between the council and Veolia. The particular information in dispute before the Tribunal was information contained in a schedule to that contract. In essence, the schedule detailed the leasing arrangements under which the council had an option to lease certain land from UKCM. The intention was that, once the leasing option was exercised by the council, Veolia would take a sub-lease of the land and then would build and maintain an incinerator on the land for the purposes of discharging its waste management obligations under the contract.
Contrary to the position adopted by the Commissioner, the Tribunal took the view that, despite the fact that it formed part of an overarching waste management contract, the information in the schedule did not in itself amount to environmental information (i.e. as it was simply information relating to prospective commercial leasing arrangements); accordingly, disclosure of the disputed information fell to be considered under FOIA rather than EIR. The applicable FOIA exemption was the commercial interests exemption (s. 43).
The Tribunal went on in its decision to comment on the application of human rights principles to the appeal, those principles having been considered by the Court of Appeal in the Veolia case. In essence, the Tribunal appears to have held that: (a) following Veolia, valuable commercial information could constitute a ‘possession’ of UKCM under Article 1 of Protocol 1 ECHR; (b) that, if the disputed information amounted to a ‘possession’, then UKMC had a right to privacy in respect of that information under Article 8(1) ECHR and, accordingly (c) disclosure under FOIA of that information would only be lawful if it was justified for the purposes of Article 8(2) ECHR. However, having reached these conclusions, the Tribunal appears to have taken the view that in fact these human rights considerations did not add very much to the overall analysis under FOIA, particularly as the requirements of the Article 8(2) justification test were already effectively reflected in the public interest balancing exercise which was built into s. 2 FOIA (see para. 74 of the decision).
It remains to be seen whether those with an interest in avoiding disclosure of commercially sensitive information will seek to argue in other cases before the tribunal that human rights considerations do in fact alter the analysis of the public interest balance under FOIA and, in particular, that they increase the weight in favour of maintaining the s. 43 exemption.