The Chagos Archipelago forms part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (“BIOT”). In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the inhabitants of the Chagos Islands were required to leave those islands. At or around that time, a US military base was established on Diego Garcia, the largest of the Chagos Islands. The removal of the “Chagossians” has been a matter of considerable political and media debate, as well as complex legal proceedings. Two legal challenges are ongoing: Chagos Islanders v UK before the European Court of Human Rights, and Bancoult (No 3) before the domestic courts.
In 1999, the then Foreign Secretary commissioned a feasibility study concerning the possible resettlement of some of the islands. A preliminary study was conducted, followed a “phase 2B” study conducted by external consultants. The final report of the phase 2B study was made public. There was some ministerial correspondence about the studies.
In April 2010, representatives of the Chagossians sought information from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office about these studies. In particular, they asked for any draft versions of the phase 2B study (and any accompanying reports), as well as related ministerial correspondence.
The FCO disclosed some information, but withheld one note to a minister (Baroness Amos). As regards the draft reports, it claimed that – if these existed at the time of the request – they were held by the external consultants who authored them. The FCO maintained that the consultants did not hold that information “on behalf of” the FCO for the purposes of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004. The Commissioner upheld the FCO’s position.
The Tribunal (chaired by Andrew Bartlett QC) upheld the Chagossians’ appeal in part. A disclaimer to the following analysis: I appeared for the Information Commissioner. The post below is not a commentary on the case, but (with my Panopticon hat on) I highlight some of the points of general interest to FOIA and EIR practitioners. For a broader commentary on the case, see the excellent post from David Hart QC on One Crown Office Row’s UK Human Rights Blog.
The Tribunal in Chagos Refugees Group in Mauritius and Chagos Social Committee (Seychelles) v IC and FCO (EA/2011/0300) agreed with the FCO that information held by the consultants was not, at the date of the request, held “on behalf of the FCO” for EIR purposes. The Tribunal applied the guidance on the approach to “held” from University of Newcastle v IC and BUAV  UKUT 185 (AAC),  2 Info LR 54 (see paragraphs 59-67). Generally, whether information is “held” will be a question of fact, but the Tribunal added that “we would also wish to qualify the proposition in McBride v IC and Ministry of Justice (EA/2007/0105) that whether information is held on behalf of a public authority is “simply a question of fact”. In some cases it will be important to determine the exact nature of the legal relationship between a person holding information and the public authority, or to determine the legal structure pursuant to which information was created and held” (paragraph 61).
The Tribunal analysed both the factual and legal relationship between the FCO and the consultants in reaching its conclusion. Its decision should be given careful attention when considering whether information is “held on behalf of” a public authority.
On the adequacy of the FCO’s own searches, the Tribunal said this at paragraph 70:
“… we consider it is relevant to draw attention also to the Tribunal’s remarks in the context of a FOIA request in Muttitt v IC (EA/2011/0036) (31 January 2012) at , to the effect that a search should be conducted intelligently and reasonably, and that this does not mean it should be an exhaustive search conducted in unlikely places: those who request information under FOIA will prefer a good search, delivering most relevant information, to a hypothetical exhaustive search delivering none, because of the cost limit.”
As to the Baroness Amos note, the Chagossians were largely successful in their appeal: disclosure was ordered, bar a few redactions. In its analysis, the Tribunal considered the time at which the public interest was to be assessed. It has become almost trite in FOIA and EIR cases that the answer to this question is “at the time of the request or, at the latest, the date at which the public authority ought to have responded”. This question is, however, not altogether settled. In this case, the Tribunal was content to assess matters up to the date of the conclusion of the FCO’s internal review (see paragraphs 22-29). On a similar point, the UpperTribunal in Evans (see my earlier post on this) by no means considered it beyond doubt that matters should only be assessed at or shortly after the date of the request.
The Tribunal considered that weighty public interests would be served by disclosure of the contents of the Baroness Amos note, despite that being only a small amount of information. At paragraph 112 it said this:
“The amount of information in a potentially disclosable document is without doubt a material matter to take into account. At the same time, it is important not to discount unduly the significance, in the public interest, of the disclosure of small amounts of information. Publicly useful freedom of information requests are generally limited in scope. If too broad, they face the obstacle under FOIA of the costs limit, and under the EIR of the proportionality requirement. If the Tribunal were to take an unduly minimalist view of the value of the publication of relatively small amounts of information on matters of considerable legitimate public interest, this would materially reduce the effectiveness of the legislation. We would regard this as tending to conflict with the general purpose of the legislation, as seen in the authoritative remarks in Sugar v BBC  UKSC 4 at -, which in our view apply with equal force to the EIR, particularly in view of the presumption in favour of disclosure found in EIR regulation 12(2).”
This outweighed the public interest in maintaining the exception for internal communications. Timing was key to the ‘safe space’ argument advanced by the FCO and the Commissioner. The Tribunal endorsed the approach taken in the Department of Health (NHS risk registers) case, whereby policy formulation can “dip in and out” of the need for a safe space. The Tribunal in this case concluded that (paragraph 123):
“We acknowledge the prospect that at some future date – perhaps in 2013, perhaps later – after the final conclusion of the two pending pieces of litigation, the resettlement policy is likely to be the subject of reconsideration. In our view that was at all material times, and remains today, a very weak reason for maintaining the confidentiality of a document written in entirely different circumstances in 2002.”