Public access to local authority information: transparency with teeth

November 20th, 2014 by Robin Hopkins

The Freedom of Information Act and Environmental Information Regulations are the dominant statutory regimes for public transparency, but they are of course not the only ones. A good example is the regime under the Local Government Act 1972 (as amended), particularly sections 100A-K. Those provisions govern public access to local authority meetings, as well as the public availability of minutes, reports, background documents and so on for such meetings, subject to provisions for exempt information (Schedule 12A).

A recent judgment of the Admin Court (Cranston J) in a planning matter, Joicey v Northumberland County Council [2014] EWHC 3657 (Admin) illustrates the importance of compliance with that regime for public access to information.

The claimant challenged the local authority’s grant of planning permission for a wind turbine. One of his grounds was its failure to make available the noise assessment report which had been considered in the granting of permission, contrary to the provisions of the 1972 Act referred to above, and also in breach of the council’s Statement of Community Involvement.

The Council had argued that the report, being on its files, was duly available. Cranston J disagreed: “it was not open to inspection by members of the public since the files were in such a state that the duty officer on 1 November fetched what must have been a Brackenside file, but not one with the report. If the Council cannot organize its files in a way which means the duty officer is able to produce a particular report within a reasonably practicable time the report is not available” (paragraph 44). This is a compelling warning to public authorities to make sure relevant information is properly (rather than technically or hypothetically) available where required.

Here is an important passage from Cranston J’s judgment about the practical and democratic value of transparency (paragraph 47):

“… Right to know provisions relevant to the taking of a decision such as those in the 1972 Act and the Council’s Statement of Community Involvement require timely publication. Information must be published by the public authority in good time for members of the public to be able to digest it and make intelligent representations: cf. R v North and East Devon Health Authority Ex p. Coughlan [2001] Q.B. 213, [108]; R (on the application of Moseley) (in substitution of Stirling Deceased) v Haringey LBC [2014] UKSC 56, [25]. The very purpose of a legal obligation conferring a right to know is to put members of the public in a position where they can make sensible contributions to democratic decision-making. In practice whether the publication of the information is timely will turn on factors such as its character (easily digested/technical), the audience (sophisticated/ ordinary members of the public) and its bearing on the decision (tangential/ central)”.

Here, the dense and technical report had not been made available with sufficient time for it to be digested acted upon.

Cranston J was also clear that, had the information been made properly available, it could have made a real difference. Officers could have been prompted to rethink certain points, and decision-makers could well have been swayed: the decision was made by “a committee of politicians where the vote was not whipped. It is a very bold person who will hazard that in such circumstances a particular result is inevitable”.

Relief was therefore appropriate: “the claimant will be entitled to relief unless the decision-maker can demonstrate that the decision it took would inevitably have been the same had it complied with its statutory obligation to disclose information in a timely fashion” (paragraph 51).

The Council’s decision was therefore quashed on the transparency ground (among others). See paragraph 59:

“Here the claimant had standing to challenge a decision of his local Council. By denying him timely access to information to which he was entitled it limited his full participation in democratic decision-making. The fact that he might not be immediately affected by the proposal where he lives is not a sufficient reason to deny him the remedy he seeks. This was a serious breach by the Council of its statutory obligations. An additional factor bearing on the exercise of discretion in this case is the Council’s own behaviour in the back-dating of the website to when the WSP noise assessment was available to it. Although it did not have any consequences in the circumstances of this case, it had the potential to mislead members of the public about their right to know and to use the information disclosed. In all there is no reason to deny the claimant his remedy.”

The case is a powerful illustration of the practical value of transparency and public participation, and of how failure to comply with laws aimed at those ends can really bite.

Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin

 

Disclosure to GMC

November 19th, 2014 by James Goudie QC

The disclosure of material to the General Medical Council (“the GMC”) by other agencies, including the Police, has an important role to play in the exercise of the GMC’s public interest functions as they relate to a Doctor’s fitness to practice.  Section 35A of the Medical Act 1983 grants a specific power to the GMC to require the disclosure of information which appears relevant to the discharge of these functions.

The leading case in relation to the duties of the Police, when a request for disclosure is received from a regulatory body, such as the GMC, remains the decision of the Court of Appeal in Woolgar v Chief Constable of Sussex Police [2000] 1 WLR 25.

The issue in R (Nakash v Metropolitan Police Service (“MPS”) and GMC [2014] EWHC 3810 (Admin), in which Judgment was given by Cox J on 17 November 2014, was whether, as the Claimant Doctor contended, the Administrative Court should prohibit the disclosure by the MPS of material requested by the GMC, on the basis that it was unlawfully obtained by the police, in breach of the Claimant’s ECHR Article 8 rights; that it included material of a highly personal and confidential nature; and that the material had no relevance to the issue of the Claimant’s fitness to practise as a medical practitioner.

Cox J concluded that the decision by the MPS to disclose the material requested by the GMC was in error. They had failed to carry out the “careful balancing exercise of competing interests” required by Article 8.  Relevance of the material is obviously an important factor.  So too, however, is the personal and confidential nature of the material requested.

At paragraph 46, Cox J said:-

 “… Since the primary decision as to disclosure will be made in these cases by the police, it is important that before the decision to disclose is made, there is a rational assessment of the relevant competing interests and that consideration is given, in each case, to the extent of the interference, and whether the disclosure sought is in accordance with the law and is a proportionate response to a legitimate aim …”

The MPS’s decision having been found to have been flawed, Cox J proceeded to carry out the balancing exercise herself, and found that disclosure by the MPS to the GMC was justified, under Article 8(2), notwithstanding the circumstances in which the MPS had obtained the material and the interference with the Doctor’s Article 8(1) rights.

James Goudie QC

 

Video recordings

November 18th, 2014 by James Goudie QC

The classification requirements imposed by the Video Recording Acts are lawful, the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) has ruled, on 14 November 2014, in R v Dryzmer and Play Media Distribution Ltd.  The prohibition on supplying video recordings which have not been classified by the British Board of Film Classification is not rendered unlawful either by ECHR Article 10, on freedom of expression, or by TFEU Articles 34-36 on non-interference with trade. The reason is the same in both cases.  Qualitative restrictions on grounds of public health and morals are justified.

This was an application of the ECJ decision in Case 244/06, Dynamic Medien Vertriebs GmbH v Avides Media AG.  In that case the ECJ observed as follows.  The protection of the rights of the child is recognised by various international instruments which the Member States have cooperated on or acceded to, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 19 December 1966 and entered into force on 23 March 1976, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 20 November 1989 and entered into force on 2 September 1990. Those international instruments are among those concerning the protection of human rights of which it takes account in applying the general principles of Community law.  Under Article 17 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the States Parties recognise the important function performed by the mass media and are required to ensure that the child has access to information and material from a diversity of national and international sources, especially those aimed at the promotion of his or her social, spiritual and moral well-being and physical and mental health. Article 17(e) provides that those States are to encourage the development of appropriate guidelines for the protection of the child from information and material injurious to his or her well-being. The protection of the child is also enshrined in instruments drawn up within the framework of the European Union, such as the Charter of Fundamental Rights, Article 24(1) of which provides that children have the right to such protection and care as is necessary for their well-being. Furthermore, the Member States’ right to take the measures necessary for reasons relating to the protection of young persons is recognised by a number of Community-law instruments. Although the protection of the child is a legitimate interest which, in principle, justifies a restriction on a fundamental freedom guaranteed by the EC Treaty, such as the free movement of goods, such restrictions may be justified only if they are suitable for securing the attainment of the objective pursued and do not go beyond what is necessary in order to attain it.  However, it is not indispensable that restrictive measures laid down by the authorities of a Member State to protect the rights of the child correspond to a conception shared by all Member States as regards the level of protection and the detailed rules relating to it.  As that conception may vary from one Member State to another on the basis of, inter alia, moral or cultural views, Member States must be recognised as having a definite margin of discretion.  Prohibiting the sale and transfer by mail order of image storage media which have not been examined and classified by the competent authority for the purpose of protecting young persons and which do not bear a label from that authority indicating the age from which they may be viewed constitutes a measure suitable for protecting children against information and materials injurious to their well-being.

 James Goudie QC

 

Kennedy goes to Strasbourg (maybe)

November 18th, 2014 by Anya Proops QC

Hot of the press – Readers of this blog will be aware of the wonderful saga involving Mr Kennedy and his tireless quest to gain access to information held by the Charity Commission. I have been told today that, having lost his appeal before the Supreme Court (see the relevant Panopticon post here), Mr Kennedy is now seeking to bring the case before the European Court of Human Rights. An application has been lodged and Mr Kennedy is now awaiting a decision on admissibility. All of which means that we may yet see the Strasbourg Court having its say on the vexed question of whether s. 32 FOIA, as currently framed, is compatible with the Art 10 right to receive information. For further updates, watch this space.

Anya Proops