In William Thackeray v IC (EA/2011/0069), the requester asked the Home Office for information it holds about Scientology. The resultant appeal to the Tribunal is the latest consideration of the FOIA exemptions for prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs (s. 36) and legal professional privilege (s. 42). The appeal failed, and reliance on both these exemptions was upheld.

The s. 42 point was short: can litigation privilege be relied upon where judicial proceedings which have been formally instituted are subsequently withdrawn? Answer: yes. The established test with regard to the application of this kind of privilege is whether there is a reasonable prospect of litigation existing at the time of the creation of the document.

Thackeray is an important decision for its review of the general principles underpinning reliance on s. 36. Public authorities often run into difficulty in seeking to obtain the opinion of the qualified person (the precondition for engaging that exemption). Particular issues arise as to the timing of and basis for the QP’s opinion, i.e. when is the latest an opinion can be obtained, and what material must the QP consider if his or her opinion is to be reasonable?

The Tribunal in Thackeray considered these two issues. As to timing, it addressed this particular question: can the opinion of the QP be obtained after the statutory 20-day period for responding to a request, but before the conducting of the public authority’s internal review? In part, this is about whether an internal review is capable of remedying flaws in an original refusal notice. Here there was a refusal in June 2009, and the QP’s opinion was obtained in November 2009. The Appellant argued that this delay undermined the reasonableness of that opinion.

In answering that question, the Tribunal made the following general observations about the use of s. 36:

  • There is a strong argument for saying that the qualified person should be at or towards the very top level of accountability.
  • This responsibility cannot be delegated.
  • The precise role of the opinion is to state whether, in that person’s view, the prejudices under s. 36 are likely to arise from disclosure. An opinion is not about the public interest.
  • The Commissioner’s role is to assess that opinion for reasonableness, akin to a Wednesbury analysis in judicial review claims. The Commissioner can only reject the substance of the opinion if it was one that no reasonably qualified person would have taken.
  • The manner and timing of the obtaining of that opinion can be considered as part of that scrutiny of reasonableness.
  • To obtain the opinion ‘late’ (i.e. after the initial refusal) is not akin to ‘late reliance’ upon an exemption.
  • The provision of the opinion by the internal review stage is sufficient. The Tribunal endorsed the approach in McIntyre v IC and MoD (EA/2007/0061), where it was held that an opinion can suffice to engage s. 36 where it is reasonable in substance, even if it was arrived at in a flawed or unreasonable manner.

As to content (i.e. the question of what must be before the QP when he or she forms her opinion), the Tribunal considered whether the QP must give consideration to the application of that FOI exemption, and whether he or she must consider the actual disputed information before reaching their opinion. This arises particularly in relation to government ministers, who in practice often make such decisions based on submissions from civil servants, rather than on the basis of actual consideration of the underlying material for themselves.

Does such an approach undermine reliance on s. 36? No, said the Tribunal. Failure to inspect the disputed information will not without more render the opinion redundant or unreasonable. It is sufficient if it is shown that the qualified person’s opinion was based on a proper understanding of the disputed information. The civil service approach, and other such approaches to obtaining the opinion of a QP, survives intact.

Robin Hopkins