Secret ‘Practice Directions’ and Royal Wills

Mr Brown became a well-known figure in litigation circles when he sought to unseal the Will of Princess Margaret in the belief that it might reveal information showing him to be her illegitimate son. In the course of his unsuccessful litigation, it was revealed that there existed what had been described orally during the court proceedings as a “Practice Direction in respect of the handling of Royal Wills” (although there is dispute over precisely what form this document takes and whether it is really a Practice Direction at all), produced by the-then President of the Family Division following liaison with the Royal Household.

Having failed to unseal the Will, Mr Brown requested a copy of the document from the Attorney General. He was refused, under section 37 FOIA. The First-tier Tribunal upheld that refusal (on which see Robin’s blog here). Mr Brown appealed to the Upper Tribunal on the grounds of inadequacy of the Tribunal’s reasons and a failure to properly apply the public interest test. He was refused permission, but then successfully judicially reviewed the Upper Tribunal for failure to grant him permission (on which, see my blog here).

Much happened subsequently. Having fought hard to prevent disclosure of the ‘Practice Direction’ the AG then released almost all of it to Mr Brown in advance of the substantive appeal hearing before the Upper Tribunal. The unreleased aspect was one paragraph, which was supplied to him in ‘gisted’ form. Nonetheless, Mr Brown sought disclosure of the outstanding paragraph. Perhaps not entirely surprisingly, Charles J in the Upper Tribunal has just refused to give him the final missing piece: Brown v ICO & Attorney General [2015] UKUT 393 (AAC).

The Upper Tribunal decision, in the light of the release by AG, had rather less work to do than it might have done, and the judgment will be of equivalent reduced wider interest. However, Charles J does roundly endorse the proposition that there is a very powerful public interest “against the creation of undisclosed principles and procedures to be applied by the court to an application to seal any will, and this is strengthened when participants in and the decision maker on that application (the court through initially or generally the President of the Family Division) and the normal guardian of the public interest (the Attorney General) have been involved in its creation on a confidential and undisclosed basis, and so in favour of the publication of the principles and procedure to be applied on any such application (particularly if initially or generally the application will be made in private)“. In other words, the AG was right to concede that the material should be disclosed. There was no further interest in the gisted paragraph also being revealed because the essential meaning had been conveyed.

Whether this brings Mr Brown’s campaign to an end is another matter, but whatever one might think of his view as to his parentage, his uncovering of a – to put it neutrally – highly unusual document agreed between the AG, the Royal Household and the President of the Family Division concerning court procedures is a worthy effort.

Robin Hopkins appeared for the ICO; Joanne Clement appeared for the Attorney General and Anya Proops appeared for Mr Brown at some of the earlier stages of proceedings.

Christopher Knight