Down the Rabbit Hole – Late Reliance under FOIA

Says the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, “Oh my furry whiskers, I’m late, I’m late, I’m late!” Although the application of FOIA may sometimes feel like Wonderland, the feeling it induces is normally more akin to turning up unexpectedly at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party (although attributing FTT judicial figures to the characters of the Mad Hatter and the Dormouse is beyond me). But one thing that has, since Birkett v DEFRA [2011] EWCA Civ 1606, not generally proved very controversial is the question of late reliance on exemptions; the White Rabbit need have little fear. Birkett made clear that late (usually after the DN and in the course of litigation before the FTT) reliance on substantive exemptions is permissible, subject to case management powers, under the EIR. The unappealed equivalent decision under FOIA, Information Commissioner v Home Office [2011] UKUT 17 (AAC), has generally been assumed to be correct.

However, there is a generous ‘but’ involved, about which lawyers are second only to Sir Mixlot in their appreciation. Can one rely late upon an exemption in Part I of FOIA? There has been a conflict of FTT and Upper Tribunal authority on the point. Independent Police Complaints Commission v Information Commissioner [2012] 1 Info LR 427 had held that there could be late reliance on section 12. The Upper Tribunal in All Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition v Information Commissioner & Ministry of Defence [2011] UKUT 153 (AAC); [2011] 2 Info LR 75 expressed the clear, if obiter, view that section 12 was not in the same position as substantive FOIA Part II exemptions because it had a different purpose; section 12 is not about the nature of the information but the effect on the public authority of having to deal with the request. The scheme of FOIA was likely to be distorted, the Upper Tribunal held, if the authority could suddenly rely on section 12 after already having carried out the search and engaged with the requestor: at [45]-[47]. The APPGER approach was accepted by the FTT in Sittampalam v Information Commissioner & BBC [2011] 2 Info LR 195. There was at least a school of thought that the APPGER logic ought also to apply to section 14 (which, as was explained in Dransfield, is not properly an exemption at all: at [10]-[11]). Then, in Department for Education v Information Commissioner & McInerney (EA/2013/0270), Judge Warren firmly concluded that section 14 (and by implication section 12) could be relied upon late. I suggested at the time that the conflict of authority on the point might require appellate resolution, and Ms McInerney appealed on that basis (in partial reliance, it appears, on my blogpost: see at [22] of the UT judgment).

 The appeal in McInerney v Information Commissioner and the Department for Education [2015] UKUT 0047 (AAC) has now been determined by Judge Jacobs (who heard the Birkett and Home Office cases). It has definitively resolved that a public authority may rely on sections 12 or 14 for the first time before the FTT, subject to the case management powers of the FTT. Although the judgment of the Upper Tribunal is fairly lengthy, the key part of the analysis is fairly brief. Judge Jacobs considered the principles derived from Birkett overtook the reasoning in APPGER, that the discussion of principle in his Home Office decision applied equally to the Part I exemptions, that section 17(1) did not prevent late reliance, that there was nothing in section 12 to require a different answer, and that late reliance may be forced on a public authority for good reasons (such as the instant appeal): at [33]-[41]. The Upper Tribunal did not consider it necessary to review the various FTT decisions. If section 12 is relied upon before the FTT for the first time, it will be the FTT which has to review the reasonableness of the estimate: at [40]. The Upper Tribunal considered that the answer on section 14 followed naturally from the answer on section 12.

 The position now at least has the benefit of consistency. Requestors will doubtless continue to be extremely frustrated by public authorities who appear to change their position at the last moment (usually when lawyers have become involved), and the FTT does not appear to have been often exercising its powers to restrict late reliance, or to punish incorrect late reliance in costs. However, if an exemption is relied upon correctly, reaching the correct answer is important. Whiskers may soothed, pocket watches stowed away, and lateness need rarely be an issue.

 Also of some practical interest will be the discussion of Judge Jacobs on the interaction of sections 14 and 16. It might be thought difficult to see how the section 16 duty could really apply to a vexatious request (“we advise you to submit a request which is not vexatious” perhaps?). Judge Jacobs accepted at [55] that a request should not have to be dissected to see if it can be severed, because that would undermine the purpose of section 14, but that section 16 cannot be ignored. The circumstances might allow a public authority to extract one part to create a non-vexatious request: at [56]. This is a little hard to understand; it might be thought the better analysis would be that properly construed, that one part was not a vexatious request, and it is not clear whether section 16 adds much. He added that it is not for the FTT to apply section 16 to assist a requestor – only the public authority is obliged to do so: at [57]-[58].

 Andrew Sharland appeared for the DfE and Robin Hopkins appeared for the ICO.

 Christopher Knight