April 28th, 2015

It has been said in the recent past that FOIA is sexy. We at 11KBW know all too well how difficult it can be to maintain a constant level of supreme attractiveness. Like all sexy beasts, even FOIA can have a day on which even its own mother would struggle would struggle to describe it as worthy of a second glance. The decision of the Court of Appeal in The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority v ICO & Leapman [2015] EWCA Civ 388 might be thought to be one of FOIA’s off-days.

For those avid readers who remember my post on the Upper Tribunal decision (here for those hard of sleeping), the issues will be vividly recalled. For everyone else, a short recitation may be useful.

Section 1 FOIA gives us a right to request information from listed public authorities, but what does “information” mean? Information is defined by section 84 of FOIA (“‘information’ (subject to sections 51(8) and 75(2)) means information recorded in any form”). This somewhat opaque definition has generally been treated as meaning that a request is for information. It is not for copies of documents. If the public authority wants to type out the document in a different format, they can, so long as the information contained within that document is provided.

Mr Leapman had made a request to IPSA for receipts and invoices provided by particular MPs in support of their expenses claims. IPSA provided him with transcribed versions of those receipts and invoices. Mr Leapman was not satisfied; he wanted the originals. The ICO agreed, as did the FTT and the UT on appeal. IPSA appealed to the Court of Appeal. Mr Leapman, formerly of the Daily Telegraph, did not participate in the Court of Appeal, doubtless being otherwise engaged in his detention at Her Majesty’s pleasure for offences of rape and downloading child abuse images.

Richards LJ gave the only judgment and it is fair to say that while it is of practical importance, the issue does not stir the blood. Nonetheless, the Court remained awake long enough to dismiss the appeal on all grounds. On the main issue, Richards LJ agreed with the ICO. Information was to be construed broadly and there would be cases where it is necessary in practice to disclose the record itself in order to communicate the entirety of the information contained in it: at [36]. There was no collapse in the distinction between the record and the information contained within it. The request had not been for copies as opposed to the information, but rather for all the recorded information contained on the receipts/invoices. Without the copies themselves, there was an inevitable shortfall in the information provided: at [39]. Counsel for ISPA conceded that some presentational elements may reveal recorded information, and that, Richards LJ held, indicated that there was no clear line between presentational elements and recorded information, even if it was sometimes difficult to spot where the line was: at [43]. If something is on the face of the document it is more readily about the information itself, rather than the form of the record (whereas the weave of the paper would go only to the record): at [42]. What is important is that the material sought is informative in the sense that tells you something, which may be visual or linguistic: at [44]. The fact that such information may go to an assessment of genuineness is a factor (but not the only factor) in assessing whether it is relevantly informative, without infringing the motive-blind approach of FOIA: at [45].

IPSA also managed to achieve the seemingly challenging feat of advancing a ground even less enthralling than the meaning of information, namely the scope of the section 11 duty to communicate information by reasonably practicable means. Here Richards LJ indulged IPSA in dealing in full with an argument which failed at the first hurdle. Section 11 is not an aspect of the section 1 obligation on public authorities; it cannot cut down the twin duties in section 1 to confirm or deny, and to release subject to exemptions. Section 11 poses a separate, additional, duty where a preference as to the means of communication is specified: at [52]-[53]. Although unnecessary to do so, Richards LJ gave the tentative view that in the light of the informal nature of requests they should not be  interpreted like contracts (something of a relief to all one would imagine), and their interpretation was a question of fact, or at least a mixed question of fact and law: at [58]. The only point on which IPSA made any ground was one of total irrelevance, namely that had the analysis got to section 11(2), the wording of “in all the circumstances” was appropriately broad enough to encompass the cost consequences of future compliance, rather than limited to the consequences of responding  to the specific request.

So, three appeals later, we end at exactly the point we started; namely that the ICO’s DN was a model of sensible reasoning and common sense. Information includes visual aspects to a document which may be informative, even if they cannot be readily transcribed by a reluctant public authority. That does not mean FOIA is now a route of documentary disclosure, any more than the DPA is. But it does call for a holistic approach to the information in issue. It requires dealing with substance and appearance, taking the information as a whole and examining it carefully. Hang on… Maybe it is a little bit sexy after all.

Robin Hopkins appeared for the ICO.

Christopher Knight

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