Open justice and freedom of information – Browning in the Court of Appeal

The issue of just how open our justice system should be is an issue which is or should be of fundamental concern to all practising lawyers. If, as Jeremy Bentham once stated ‘publicity is the very soul of justice’ (cited by Lord Shaw in the leading case of Scott v Scott [1913] AC 477), then an open justice system is the corporeal expression of that soul. However, we now live in times where open justice is increasingly under threat. Indeed, as last week’s headlines reminded us all, matters have now got to a stage where some judges at least have been prepared to allow, not merely the deployment of a limited closed procedure to deal with certain aspects of a case, but a completely secret trial. It no doubt came as a relief to many that the Court of Appeal was not prepared to sanction such a comprehensive departure from the open justice principle: Guardian News v AB CD. However, the mere fact that the judiciary was prepared to contemplate such a procedure shows how far we have come since the days of Scott v Scott.

Today the open justice principle is back before the Court of Appeal as it hears the case of Browning v IC & DBIS (the Court comprises Maurice Kay LJ (Vice President of the Court of Appeal, Civil Division), Patten LJ and McCombe LJ). This time the core issue for the Court of Appeal to determine is the extent to which secrecy in judicial proceedings is a necessary evil in the context of appeals concerning the application of the FOIA regime (see Robin Hopkins’ post about the Upper Tribunal decision being appealed here).

Of course, the starting point in such a case must be that the information which is itself the subject of the appeal (i.e. the disputed information) should be withheld from the applicant and the wider public pending the outcome of the appellate process. Were it otherwise, an applicant would be able to access information which the legislation had designated as exempt simply by mounting an appeal. Plainly this cannot be the right result and it is not the result which Mr Browning is seeking in his case. Rather the issue which arises in Browning is the extent to which other sensitive evidence and submissions, which the public authority wishes to advance in support of its case on appeal, can equally be shrouded in secrecy.

This is a major issue both for applicants, the media and the wider public. This is so for two reasons.

–        First, if an applicant is unable to gain access to key evidence relied upon by the public authority in support of its case on appeal, then inevitably they will be substantially handicapped in advancing their case on appeal. In effect, they are conducting the litigation blindfolded and with one arm tied behind their back. Even if they are given the gist of the evidence in question, typically the devil is in the detail, with the result that the applicant is unable to fathom the substance of the case being put against them. Faced with that scenario, the applicant can only hope that the tribunal, possibly with the assistance of the Commissioner, will itself have the imagination, legal acuity and strength of resolve to subject the public authority’s closed evidence and submissions to proper testing during the closed session.

–        Second, the adoption of closed procedures substantially prevents any rigorous public scrutiny of the ways in which the judiciary is discharging its functions in the context of FOIA appeals. If open justice is, as Lord Shaw put it in Scott v Scott ‘the keenest spur to [judicial] exertion and the surest of all guards against improbity’ then the adoption of closed procedures is the surest way to strip the public of what has been described as its constitutional right to put the judges on trial and ensure that they are discharging their functions in a just manner.

That the latter concern is of real practical importance has been illustrated not least in a recent case in which I acted on behalf of an applicant: Brown v Attorney General, which you can read about here. In Brown, which concerned a request to access a so-called judicial practice direction concerning the sealing of Royal wills, the Upper Tribunal refused Mr Brown permission to appeal against the First-Tier Tribunal’s decision. It was clear that, in refusing permission, the Upper Tribunal had relied heavily on closed material to which Mr Brown had not been privy, although its open written reasons did not indicate how consideration of the closed material warranted this result. However, when the issue of the legality of the Upper Tribunal’s decision came before the High Court by way of a judicial review claim brought by Mr Brown, the Court, which had not been provided with the closed material, readily granted permission for Mr Brown’s claim to proceed. Thereafter the Attorney-General conceded the claim with the result that the appeal against the First-Tier Tribunal’s decision is now due to be substantively heard by the Upper Tribunal. The lesson one draws from this case is that it cannot be presumed that tribunals which reach decisions based on their analysis of closed materials consistently get the approach right.

Of course, it might be said that the appellate process is itself sufficient to address this problem, as it was in the case of Brown. However, there are three difficulties with this argument. First, it presumes, rather unrealistically, that applicants will themselves always have the courage and resources to take their cases to the higher courts. Second, it fails to address the significant point that very often, as a result of their exclusion from the closed process, applicants will have little clue whether or not an appeal would have legs, which very often will deter an applicant from even contemplating an appeal and will in any event substantially inhibit the formulation of potentially relevant grounds of appeal. Third, it ignores the constitutional right of the wider public to scrutinise the judicial process. Significantly, members of the general public, including members of the media, will themselves have no right to appeal in a case in which they were not a party.

So there we have the problem. What is the solution? Well Mr Browning’s case is simple: (a) the tribunal should ensure at a minimum that it rigorously tests assertions by the public authority that particular evidence or particular submissions need to be dealt with on a closed basis (this should now in any event be happening on a routine basis in the tribunal) and (b) in cases where some evidence or submissions have to be dealt with as part of the closed process, the tribunal should allow the applicant’s legal representative to see any closed material and take part in any closed hearing, on condition that he or she does not disclose any part of the closed material to the applicant or any third party. (Interestingly, and by way of contrast, in the Guardian v ABCD case, in the course of the first instance hearing of the application for the trial to be conducted in secret, the court permitted counsel for the media to see relevant closed materials and participate in the closed part of the hearing).

In view of the conclusions reached by the Upper Tribunal, one can anticipate that that the ICO and DBIS, who both resist the appeal will argue: (a) that a core difficulty with an approach which permits the applicant’s representative to access the closed materials/closed session is that it lacks the procedural safeguards available, for example where ‘special advocates’ are used – see further the Upper Tribunal’s decision where reference is made for example to the risk that the applicant’s representative will inadvertently leak closed material to the applicant and, further, (b) that the inquisitorial manner in which the tribunal approaches the exercise of its functions substantially diminishes the pressure to involve the applicant’s representative in the closed part of the hearing.

It remains to be seen what the Court of Appeal will make of these arguments. However, no one can doubt the importance of this case, not only in terms of establishing the applicable procedural rules for the information tribunal, but also in terms of the wider constitutional vitality of the open justice principle.

11KBW’s Ben Hooper is acting for the ICO.

Anya Proops