The right to freedom of expression under Article 10(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights includes “freedom… to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority”. Does that mean that there is a human right to freedom of information?
The question has haunted the courtrooms of the UK and other EU member states in recent years. In England and Wales, the last domestic word has been Kennedy v Charity Commission  UKSC 20. The answer in Kennedy was ‘no’: Article 10 ECHR does not impose a positive, free-standing duty on public authorities to disclose information upon request.
That is not, however, the final word. Kennedy is to be heard by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg – but the case has been stayed. This is because the Grand Chamber accepted another case raising essentially the same question.
The case is Magyar Helsinki Bizottság v Hungary (18030/11). The applicant, a human rights NGO, asked police forces to disclose information about ‘public defenders’, i.e. defence counsel appointed in criminal proceedings. The police forces refused, and the Hungarian court refused to order disclosure. The applicant complains that the refusal interferes with its rights under Article 10.
The case Bizottság was heard by the Grand Chamber today.
The UK government was an intervener. It urged the Court to conclude that Article 10 ECHR does not create a right to receive information from a public authority, in accordance with a line of authority (Leander v Sweden (1987) 9 EHRR 433, Gaskin v United Kingdom (1990) 12 EHRR 36, Guerra v Italy (1998) 26 EHRR 357 and Roche v United Kingdom (2006) 42 EHRR 30).
The Hungarian government’s position was to the same effect. It contended that concessions made in cases supporting the link between Article 10 and freedom of information (such as Társaság a Szabadsagjogokert v Hungary (2011) 53 EHRR 3 and Kenedi v Hungary 27 BHRC 335) were fact-specific.
Statutory rights to freedom of information in England and Wales are currently under threat of curtailment. Kennedy introduced (or confirmed) that, at least in certain circumstances, freedom of information also has a common law foundation. The Grand Chamber’s judgment in Bizottság will reveal whether, in addition to its statutory and common law pillars, freedom of information has a human rights basis as well.
Jason Coppel QC, Karen Steyn QC and Christopher Knight of 11KBW represented intervening parties in Bizottság.
Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin