Time to End the Time Debate

The apparently endless APPGER litigation has produced yet another decision of the Upper Tribunal for seasoned FOIA watchers, which amongst some very fact-specific issues, also contains two important clarifications of law: APPGER v ICO & FCO [2015] UKUT 377 (AAC).

As anyone who has ever done any information law ever will know, the APPGER litigation concerns requests under FOIA for information related to alleged British involvement in extraordinary rendition. Some information has been released, some has been released following earlier rounds of litigation, some remains withheld under various exemptions.

Following previous hearings staying various points, the present round of litigation concerned the application of section 23 (the security bodies exemption) and section 27 (international relations). There were two points of wider interest discussed in particular. One is the time at which the public interest is assessed (relevant to section 27), and one is the breadth of the “relates to” limb of section 23.

The time point was one which only really arose because of the Upper Tribunal’s desire to throw a mangy cat amongst the pigeons by suggesting in Defra v ICO & Badger Trust [2014] UKUT 526 (AAC) at [44]-[48] that the correct time to assess the public interest might be the date of Tribunal hearing. As some wise and learned commentators have pointed out, this rather seemed to have been overtaken by the Supreme Court’s – technically obiter – reasoning in R (Evans) v Attorney General [2015] UKSC 21 at [72]-[73] that the time was at the point of the authority’s refusal.

The Upper Tribunal in APPGER (containing at least one member of the panel in Badger Trust) issued a mea culpa and accepted that Evans was right: at [49]-[57]. It did not reach any more specific decision on situations where, for example, the authority has been late in complying. Doubtless the difference in time will often not matter very much. But the principle of the point now seems resolved.

Section 23(1) was not a point answered by Evans, and an argument was run by the requestor that “relates to” should be construed narrowly, as in the DPA. The Upper Tribunal disagreed: at [15]-[19]. The ordinary meaning of the language was broad, it was consistent with the aim of shutting the backdoor to the security bodies, it was consistent with authority, and met the contextual aim of FOIA where the contextual aim of the DPA was very different. The idea of requiring a “focus or main focus” was rejected.

Whilst agreeing that it should not attempt to gloss the statutory language, the Upper Tribunal nonetheless sought to assist future cases by indicating that asking whether the information requested had been supplied to a security body for the purposes of the discharge of its statutory functions (a test attributed to Mitting J) would have considerable utility. It would enable a clear explanation, it would allow differentiation within and without the scope of the exemption, and it was less likely to require a detailed line-by-line approach to redactions: at [33]. The language remains broad, but the practical application of it appears to have been ‘guided’ into a slightly narrower pigeon-hole than might have otherwise been the case.

The judgment as a whole is worth reading on the application of those exemptions to the particular information and the treatment of the evidence by the Upper Tribunal, but those two points of principle are the keys to take away. And about time too.

Timothy Pitt-Payne QC and Joanne Clement appeared for APPGER; Karen Steyn QC appeared for the FCO; Robin Hopkins appeared for the ICO.

Christopher Knight