Anonymity: publication and open justice

The tension between transparency and individual privacy is part of what makes information rights such a fascinating and important area. When it comes to high-public interest issues involving particular individuals, prevailing wisdom has tended to be something like this: say as much as possible on an open basis, but redact and anonymise so as to protect the identity of the individuals involved. Increasingly, however, transparency is outmuscling privacy. See for example my post about the Tribunal’s order of disclosure, in the FOIA context, of the details of the compensation package of a Chief Executive of an NHS Trust (the case of Dicker v IC (EA/2012/0250).

The recent Care Quality Commission debate is the highest-profile recent illustration: the health regulator published a consultant’s report into failings regarding the deaths of babies at Furness General Hospital, but withheld the names of the individuals being criticised (including for alleged ‘cover-ups’), relying on the Data Protection Act 1998. The anonymisation was not endorsed by the Information Commissioner, and attracted widespread criticism in media and political circles. Transparency pressures held sway.

In a similar vein, the BBC has come under great pressure over the past week – particularly from Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee – to reveal the names of approximately 150 departing senior managers who received pay-offs averaging £164,000 in the past three years. As the Telegraph reports, the Committee is threatening to use parliamentary privilege to publish those names. The BBC admits that it “got things wrong” by overpaying in many cases (as confirmed by the National Audit Office), but is concerned to protect the DPA and privacy rights of the affected individuals, as well as to safeguard its own independence. The Committee says the public interest in transparency is compelling; Lord Patten, chair of the BBC Trust, says there will be “one hell of an argument” about this.

Such arguments become all the more thorny in the context of open justice disputes, of which there have been a number in recent weeks.

In the matter of Global Torch Ltd/Apex Global Management Ltd (The Guardian, The Financial Times and others intervening) [2013] EWCA Civ 819 involved competing petitions of unfair prejudice alleging misconduct in the affairs of a particular company. Two Saudi Arabian princes and one of their private advisers applied to have the interlocutory hearings held in private under CPR rule 39.2(3). The Court of Appeal agreed with the judge who dismissed those applications. It rejected the contention that the judge had elevated open justice above Article 8 ECHR rights as a matter of law. Rather, he noted that some general presumptions were valid (for example, open justice is likely to trump reputational damage) and applied those in the factual context of this case. Maurice Kay LJ said  (paragraph 34) that there was sometimes a “need for a degree of protection so as to avoid the full application of the open justice principle exposing a victim to the very detriment which his cause of action is designed to prevent… If such an approach were to be extended to a case such as the present one, it could equally be applied to countless commercial and other cases in which allegations of serious misconduct are made. That would result in a significant erosion of the open justice principle. It cannot be justified where adequate protection exists in the form of vindication of the innocent through the judicial process to trial”.

Open justice is of course fundamental not only to freedom of expression, but is also the default setting for fair trials. This is illustrated in the regulatory/disciplinary context by Miller v General Medical Council [2013] EWHC 1934 (Admin). The case involved a challenge to a decision by a Fitness to Practise Panel of the Council’s Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service that a fitness to practise hearing should take place in private because it considered that the complainant, a former patient of the claimant, was otherwise unlikely to give evidence. HHJ Pelling quashed the decision; there was insufficient evidence for the Panel’s conclusion about witness participation, and in any event the Panel “fell into error at the outset by not reminding itself sufficiently strongly or at all that the clear default position under Article 6 is that the hearing should be in public. It failed to remind itself that Article 6 creates or declares rights that are the rights of the Claimant and that it was for the GMC to prove both the need for any derogation from those rights and for a need to derogate to the extent claimed” (paragraph 20).

Robin Hopkins

Closed material and closed proceedings in FOIA litigation: authoritative guidance from the Upper Tribunal

Closed material and closed proceedings are commonplace in FOIA litigation. As regards the disputed information itself, the need is self-explanatory. But what about closed material other than the disputed information, such as evidence in support of a public authority’s reliance on exemptions? To what extent is it appropriate for FOIA proceedings to be determined by reference to such material which the requester is unable to see and challenge? Also, if the public authority’s concern is with public disclosure of such material, is the solution to be found in a readiness to bring the requester’s legal representatives into a ‘confidentiality ring’? In other words, do natural and open justice demand that requesters’ legal representatives be allowed to attend the closed part of the hearing and see the closed material?

These questions are fundamental to the fair and thorough determination of disputes about the rights conferred by FOIA. In a very important recent decision, the Upper Tribunal has given its answers.

The case

Browning v IC and Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (GIA 25/12) was heard by Mr Justice Charles, Mr Justice Mitting and Upper Tribunal (UT) Judge Andrew Bartlett QC. The decision is available here: Browning GIA 25 12.

The case concerned a request from a Bloomberg journalist for information from the Export Control Organisation (for which DBIS is the relevant public authority) in connection with licences issued for the exporting to Iran of “controlled goods” – explained as “mainly military, dual use (potentially military), equipment designed for torture or repression or sources of radio-activity”. DBIS relied on sections 41 and 43 FOIA. The IC found for the requester but, upon sight of further evidence, supported DBIS’ appeal before the First-Tier Tribunal (FTT). In decision EA/2011/0044, the FTT allowed DBIS’ appeal. In reaching its decision the FTT considered closed material and part of the hearing was closed.

The closed material comprised not only the disputed information, but DBIS’ evidence supporting its reliance on the exemptions. In particular, DBIS had written to applicants for such licences to obtain their views about disclosure, and it relied on their (confidential) responses in closed. Four or five of the 92 responses had been provided to Mr Browning in an anonymised, re-typed and redacted form prior to the hearing before the FTT, so as to illuminate to a degree the nature of the closed evidence being relied upon.

Mr Browning had not asked for more of the closed evidence to be made available to him in that way. Rather, a without-notice application was made at the FTT hearing for his legal representative(s) to see the closed material and attend the closed hearing in order to put the case on his behalf. The FTT refused the application. It summarised the approach taken in other FTT decisions, whereby such applications “will succeed only if there are exceptional circumstances specific to the appeal… The use of special counsel, as an alternative, is likewise exceptional.”

Mr Browning’s first ground of appeal before the UT was against the FTT’s refusal of that application.

Reliance on closed material

Mr Browning understandably contended that “the principles of open and natural justice and of fairness require, or strongly support the conclusion, that their application in the context of adversarial civil litigation should be departed from to the least extent possible… in the determination of an appeal to the FTT under FOIA” (para 48).

The UT said, however, that those principles admit of some context-sensitive flexibility. FOIA appeals are materially dissimilar from criminal and adversarial civil litigation. At paras 59-60, it said that:

“FOIA and its underlying purposes mean that, when a disputed request for information reaches the First-tier Tribunal pursuant to the statutory scheme put in place by FOIA, the relevant background and landscape of rights, interests and duties is materially different from that which obtains in criminal and civil litigation in the courts… It follows from the points we have made about the purposes of FOIA that, in our view, to characterise the First–tier Tribunal’s function, within the statutory scheme established by FOIA, as or equating to ordinary civil and therefore adversarial litigation because it is deciding a dispute between the parties before it, or deciding whether to vindicate a right claimed by the applicant, is an inadequate and inaccurate description; rather, its function is investigatory and is to see that FOIA is properly applied to the circumstances. This involves consideration, in the manner provided by FOIA, of the right which is given by s. 1(1) in pursuance of the interests served by the release of information, together with the assessment of countervailing public and private interests in accordance with the terms of the exemptions.”

Closed proceedings are thus intrinsic to FOIA litigation. The UT has confirmed the right to rely on closed evidence other than the disputed information (though see below for procedural caveats). See paras 59-60:

“(i) it is clear that Parliament did not intend that there should be such a “back door” route to information in respect of which a FOIA exemption could be claimed.  It follows that there is a need to protect it from disclosure to a requester that is equivalent to that which exists in respect of the information he or she has requested, and

(ii) it is also apparent that Parliament did not intend to spawn disproportionate and satellite disputes on whether an exemption applies to information put forward to establish a claimed exemption, and this is a reason why it chose an investigatory appeal process to a tribunal comprising persons with relevant expertise.”

The UT concluded that (para 71):

“The exercise by the First-tier Tribunal of its discretion under the 2009 Rules to consider closed material and to hold a closed hearing is not governed directly, or by analogy, by the approach taken by the civil courts to the disclosure of relevant material and we therefore reject Mr Browning’s central argument that it should be exercised to achieve a result that departs to the least extent possible from the approach taken in adversarial civil litigation.”

Applications for representatives to see closed material/attend closed hearings

The UT reviewed the jurisprudence on this issue (which has not favoured the granting of such applications) and discussed the problems that would arise if such an application were granted. There is a risk of accidental disclosure. It can be difficult for the representative to police neat lines between what he can and cannot say to his client or in open session. More generally, there would be very problematic limitations on taking instructions, such that (para 76) “the value added of the approach over that of suggesting lines of enquiry to the First-tier Tribunal and the Information Commissioner is likely to be limited to what the representative knows of his client’s position before he takes part in the closed process.” In any event, what to do about unrepresented requesters?

At paras 80-81, the UT set outs its conclusions:

“… a First-tier Tribunal should not direct that a representative of an excluded party should see closed material or attend a closed hearing unless it has concluded that, if it does not does so: it cannot carry out its investigatory function of considering and testing the closed material and give appropriate reasons for its decision on a sufficiently informed basis and so fairly and effectively in the given case having regard to the competing rights and interests involved.

81.          We also acknowledge and confirm that this approach will lead to the result that it will only be in exceptional and so rare cases that a representative of a party seeking information under FOIA will be permitted to see closed material and attend at a closed part of the hearing.  Indeed, we have not been able to identify circumstances in which we think that this would be appropriate, but acknowledge that it cannot be said that this should never be done.”

It also considered that Article 6 ECHR was not engaged, and that its engagement would not dislodge the above conclusions in any event.

Mr Browning’s first ground of appeal therefore failed. The UT did, however, have more to say on how to approach reliance on closed material. All parties involved in FOIA litigation should pay careful attention to these points.

The Practice Note and other observations on the use of closed material

The UT had misgivings about the limited extent of the anonymised closed material which had been made available to Mr Browning on an open basis. It noted, however, that this limited disclosure had for a vigorous and partially successful challenging of the evidence by the requester’s counsel. “During the period leading up to the hearing and when it began Mr Browning and his legal representatives had ample opportunity to seek by way of agreement or further direction additional information about the extent, content and nature of the Closed Exemption Evidence and they did not do so”.

Strictly speaking, the UT has declined to issue general guidance on the approach to allowing reliance on closed material at FTT level, but it has made a number of important points.

It observed (para 42) that “the need to avoid disclosure of the requested information is an obvious and good reason for there being closed material and a closed hearing, but in some cases this may not be the only reason that justifies a First-tier Tribunal considering closed material and holding a closed hearing”.

The FTT’s Practice Note on Closed Material in Information Rights Cases (issued in May 2012) was also considered. The UT said this (para 17):

“This does not have the force of a rule of law or a practice direction, and this judgment should not be taken as comprehensively endorsing it, but we do consider that it is something that First-tier Tribunals should take into account and, if they do not apply it in a given case, they should explain why they have not done so.  In particular, in our judgment, if no written and reasoned application for there to be closed material and a closed hearing has been made pursuant to that Practice Note, First–tier Tribunals should explain why they have proceeded without one.”

It added this on the FTT’s approach to closed material in general (para 18):

“More generally, we comment that First-tier Tribunals should consider and give appropriately detailed directions and reasons (i) setting out the nature and subject matter of any closed material and hearing, (ii) why they have accepted that they should consider evidence advanced by a public authority (or anyone else) and argument on a closed basis, and (iii) why further information relating to their content has not been provided.  If this is done it will provide clarity as to what will be, and has been, considered on a closed basis and why, for example, evidence provided to support an exemption has been so considered and more of it, or about it, has not been disclosed.”

Finally, the UT was clear as to the ongoing nature of these duties (para 39): “throughout the proceedings a tribunal carrying out its investigatory function must keep under review whether information about closed material should be provided to an excluded party in, for example, an anonymised form”.

Clearly, all FTT proceedings involving closed should be conducted in light of the points made above.

Other grounds of appeal: sections 41 and 43 of FOIA

Mr Browning’s other grounds of appeal also failed before the UT. Some of those grounds concerned the FTT’s findings on section 41 of FOIA (actionable breach of confidence). Mr Browning that the disputed information had not been “obtained” from outside the public authority, that the name of a licence applicant does not have the necessary quality of confidence, and that applicants had not imparted licence information in circumstances importing an obligation of confidence. All of those grounds of appeal were dismissed.

More broadly, on the approach to section 41 of FOIA, the UT has said this (para 30):

“It was also common ground before the FTT, and not an issue that was raised or argued before us, that the consideration of whether disclosure would constitute a breach of confidence that is “actionable” incorporates all parts of the breach of confidence action, including the absence of a public interest defence.  This accords with existing First-tier Tribunal decisions (see for example, Gurry on Breach of Confidence 2nd edit para 13.130 and in particular HCFC v IC & Guardian News and Media EA 2009/0036).  On that approach, the point that s. 41 is an absolute exemption is not as significant as it might first appear because within it there is a need to weigh the competing public interests, and as pointed out in a footnote to that paragraph in Gurry, the reverse approach to weighing the public interest in respect of a breach of confidence to that set out in s. 2 of FOIA in respect of a qualified exemption, if anything, makes it easier to establish the s. 41 exemption but is unlikely to become a determinative factor.”

Mr Browning also challenged the FTT’s conclusions on the detriment likely to arise from disclosure and argued that it had not identified the prejudice to commercial interests or the likelihood of that prejudice (for section 43(2) FOIA purposes).

The UT did have misgivings about the FTT’s comments about ‘chilling effect’ arguments on the evidence, but found that it there had been an error of law, it was at most a makeweight finding which did not suffice to overturn the FTT’s decision.

Ben Hooper acted for the Information Commissioner.

Robin Hopkins

CPR disclosure applications: ignore the DPA; balance Articles 6 and 8 instead

It is increasingly common for requests for disclosure in pre-action or other litigation correspondence to include a subject access request under section 7 of the Data Protection Act 1998. Litigants dissatisfied with the response to such requests often make applications for disclosure. Where an application is made in the usual way (i.e. under the CPR, rather than as a claim under section 7 of the DPA), how should it be approached? As a subject access request, with the “legal proceedings” exemption (section 35) arising for consideration, or as an “ordinary” disclosure application under CPR Rule 31? If the latter, what role (if any) do data protection rights play in the analysis of what should be disclosed?

As the Court of Appeal in Durham County Council v Dunn [2012] EWCA Civ 1654 observed in a judgment handed down today, there is much confusion and inconsistency of approach to these questions. Difficulties are exacerbated when the context is particularly sensitive – local authority social work records being a prime example. Anyone grappling with disclosure questions about records of that type will need to pay close attention to the Dunn judgment.

Background to the disclosure application

Mr Dunn alleged that he had suffered assaults and systemic negligence while in local authority care. He named individual perpetrators. He also said he had witnessed similar acts of violence being suffered by at other boys. He brought proceedings against the local authority. His solicitors asked for disclosure of various documents; included in the list of requested disclosure was the information to which Mr Dunn was entitled under section 7 of the DPA. Some documents were withheld from inspection, apparently on data protection grounds.

Mr Dunn made a disclosure application in the usual way, i.e. he did not bring a section 7 DPA claim. The District Judge assessed the application in data protection terms. He ordered disclosure with the redaction of names and addresses of residents of the care facility – but not those of staff members and other agents, who would not suffer the same stigmas or privacy incursions from such disclosure.

Mr Dunn said he could not pursue his claim properly without witnesses and, where appropriate, their contact details. He appealed successfully against the disclosure order. The order for redaction was overturned. The judge’s approach was to consider this under the CPR (this being a civil damages claim) – but to take the DPA into account as a distinct consideration in reaching his disclosure decision.

The relevance of the DPA

The Court of appeal upheld the use of the CPR as the correct regime for the analysis. It also upheld the appeal judge’s ultimate conclusion. It said, however, that he went wrong in treating the DPA as a distinct consideration when considering a disclosure application under the CPR. With such applications, the DPA is a distraction (paragraphs 21 and 23 of the judgment of Maurice Kay LJ). It is potentially “misleading to refer to a duty to protect data as if it were a category of exemption from disclosure or inspection. The true position is that CPR31, read as a whole, enables and requires the court to excuse disclosure or inspection on public interest grounds” (paragraph 21).

This was not to dismiss the usefulness of a subject access request to those contemplating litigation. See paragraph 16:

“I do not doubt that a person in the position of the claimant is entitled – before, during or without regard to legal proceedings – to make an access request pursuant to section 7. I also understand that such a request prior to the commencement of proceedings may be attractive to prospective claimants and their solicitors. It is significantly less expensive than an application to the Court for disclosure before the commencement of proceedings pursuant to CPR31.16. Such an access may result in sufficient disclosure to satisfy the prospective claimant’s immediate needs. However, it has its limitations. For one thing, the duty of the data controller under section 7 is not expressed in terms of disclosure of documents but refers to communication of “information” in “an intelligible form”. Although this may be achieved by disclosure of copies of original documents, possibly redacted pursuant to section 7(5), its seems to me that it may also be achievable without going that far. Secondly, if the data subject is dissatisfied by the response of the data controller, his remedy is by way of proceedings pursuant to section 7 which would be time-consuming and expensive in any event. They would also engage the CPR at that stage: Johnson v Medical Defence Union [2005] 1 WLR 750; [2004] EWCH 2509 (Ch).”

Instead, the CPR disclosure analysis should balance Article 6 and Article 8 rights in the context of the particular litigation.

Maurice Kay LJ summed up the requisite approach as follows:

“What does that approach require? First, obligations in relation to disclosure and inspection arise only when the relevance test is satisfied. Relevance can include “train of inquiry” points which are not merely fishing expeditions. This is a matter of fact, degree and proportionality. Secondly, if the relevance test is satisfied, it is for the party or person in possession of the document or who would be adversely affected by its disclosure or inspection to assert exemption from disclosure or inspection. Thirdly, any ensuing dispute falls to be determined ultimately by a balancing exercise, having regard to the fair trial rights of the party seeking disclosure or inspection and the privacy or confidentiality rights of the other party and any person whose rights may require protection. It will generally involve a consideration of competing ECHR rights. Fourthly, the denial of disclosure or inspection is limited to circumstances where such denial is strictly necessary. Fifthly, in some cases the balance may need to be struck by a limited or restricted order which respects a protected interest by such things as redaction, confidentiality rings, anonymity in the proceedings or other such order. Again, the limitation or restriction must satisfy the test of strict necessity.”

How to approach disclosure of social work records in litigation

This issue was dealt with by Munby LJ. In short, the main question was whether those seeking to withhold or redact social work records in litigation should analyse the issue in terms of public interest immunity (as some textbooks, older authorities and even the White Book appeared to suggest) or in terms of a balancing between competing rights under the ECHR (in particular, Articles 6 and 8).

Munby LJ made clear that the right answer is the latter. Where information contained in social work records is to be withheld in legal proceedings, this should not now be on the basis of a claim to public interest immunity; we are “a world away from 1970 or even 1989” (paragraph 43). This was despite the fact that “the casual reader of the White Book” (paragraph 31.3.33 in particular) could be forgiven for thinking that PII applies to local authority social work records. Here Munby LJ said he “would respectfully suggest that the treatment of this important topic in the White Book is so succinct as to be inadvertently misleading” (paragraph 48).

Importantly, Munby LJ also went on to explain how (and with what stringency) Article 8 rights to privacy and the protection of personal information should be approached when disclosing information pursuant to litigation. At paragraph 50, he gave the following guidance:

“… particularly in the light of the Convention jurisprudence, disclosure is never a simply binary question: yes or no. There may be circumstances, and it might be thought that the present is just such a case, where a proper evaluation and weighing of the various interests will lead to the conclusion that (i) there should be disclosure but (ii) the disclosure needs to be subject to safeguards. For example, safeguards limiting the use that may be made of the documents and, in particular, safeguards designed to ensure that the release into the public domain of intensely personal information about third parties is strictly limited and permitted only if it has first been anonymised. Disclosure of third party personal data is permissible only if there are what the Strasbourg court in Z v Finland (1998) 25 EHRR 373, paragraph 103, referred to as “effective and adequate safeguards against abuse.” An example of an order imposing such safeguards can be found in A Health Authority v X (Discovery: Medical Conduct) [2001] 2 FLR 673, 699 (appeal dismissed A Health Authority v X [2001] EWCA Civ 2014, [2002] 1 FLR 1045).”

Robin Hopkins