Happy birthday FOIA: orthodoxy and liberalism

With FOIA celebrating its tenth birthday this month, it is striking that one of its most taken-for-granted axioms has been called into question. The axiom is this: the relevant time is the time of the request, extending perhaps until the statutory time for compliance with the request. When you are assessing the public interest balance and the engagement of exemptions, that is the time you look to; you ignore later developments.

In Defra v IC and the Badger Trust (GI/79/2014), the requester (the Badger Trust) had requested information about Defra’s risk assessments for the proposed badger culling programme. The ICO ordered disclosure. Defra appealed. The case was transferred to the Upper Tribunal due to a witness anonymity issue. The Upper Tribunal dismissed Defra’s appeal. It was not persuaded by Defra’s evidence as to the public interest balance. The judgment is here DEFRA v ICO and Badger Trust – Judgment on Public Interest.

In its judgment, the UT pondered the question of the relevant time. It declined to rule, but stated that it considered this question to be an open one: see paragraphs 44-48. A central tenet of FOIA/EIR orthodoxy over the past decade has been called into question.

Another recent UT judgment is worthy of note as FOIA turns ten. It does not introduce uncertainty, but rather – from the point of view of FOIA’s fans – provides a heartening affirmation of the purpose of the legislation. The case is UCAS v IC and Lord Lucas [2014] UKUT 0557 (AAC): see here UCAS. It was about the extent to which FOIA applied to UCAS. The point I draw out here is this one, at paragraph 39 of the decision of Judge Wikeley:

“I agree with Mr Knight that the starting point in this exercise in statutory interpretation must be the principle that FOIA is a constitutionally important piece of legislation, the scope of which must be interpreted broadly. This much is plain from Sugar (No. 2) itself (see Lord Walker at [76] and Lord Mance at [110]), as well as from other decisions of the House of Lords and Supreme Court (see Common Services Agency v Scottish Information Commissioner [2008] UKHL 47 at [4] per Lord Hope and Kennedy v Charity Commission [2014] UKSC 20 at [153] per Lord Sumption). This emphasis on a liberal construction is, to borrow a phrase from a different context of statutory interpretation, the golden thread which runs through the FOIA case law, whether in the rarefied atmosphere of the Supreme Court or on the judicial shop floor at the First-tier Tribunal.”

So then, happy birthday FOIA. Some of the assumptions of your youth may be in question, but your golden thread is strong. Somebody put that in a greeting card, please.

I appeared in the Badger Trust case. Chris Knight appeared in the UCAS case.

Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin

A history and overview of the FOIA/EIR veto

The ‘veto’ (ministerial certificate) provision under s. 53 of FOIA (imported also into the EIRs) has been much discussed – on this blog and elsewhere – of late. Here is another excellent resource on the subject which is worth drawing to the attention of readers who want to understand this issue in more detail. Earlier this week, the House of Commons library published this note by Oonagh Gay and Ed Potton on the veto, its use to date, and comparative jurisdictions (Australia, New Zealand, Ireland).

Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin

Property searches under the EIRs: Tribunal refers questions to the CJEU

The ability to impose charges for the provision of property search information is an important financial issue for many local authorities. Historically it had been thought by many that the imposition of such charges was governed by the Local Authorities (England) (Charges for Property Searches) Regulations 2008 (“CPSR”), which allow local authorities to recover all the costs of making such information available (including staff costs, overhead costs and the costs of maintaining relevant information systems). However, in recent years there has been an increasing awareness of the fact that requests for property search information to a large extent amount to requests for access to environmental information, such that they call for an application of the charging regime provided for in r. 8 of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004. The CPSR itself specifically provides that it does not apply to the provision of any information which is governed by other statutory charging regimes. Accordingly, it would seem that the CPSR is inapplicable in respect of requests for property search information insofar as those requests are made under the EIR.

Regulation 8 EIR allow reasonable charges to be imposed for making environmental information available, save that no charge may be imposed for permitting access to public registers or examining the requested information in situ. The question of when a public authority can impose charges and also what will constitute a reasonable charge has now been considered by the tribunal in a number of different cases, all of which concerned requests for property search information (see e.g. Kirklees Council v IC & Pali Ltd [2011] UKUT 104 (AAC) and also East Riding of Yorkshire v IC).

Earlier this year, in Leeds City Council v IC & APPS Claimants (EA/2012/0020-21); [2013] 1 Info LR 406, the First-Tier Tribunal was asked to decide whether, when making environmental information available other than by means of inspection or through public registers, the local authority was entitled under r. 8 to charge only for disbursements (the Commissioner’s case) or whether other costs, such as the cost of staff time spent searching for the requested information and overhead costs, could be factored into the charge (the Council’s case). Having carefully considered not only r. 8 but the provisions on charging in the Directive on Public Access to Environmental Information (“the Directive”), the FTT concluded that public authorities could only charge in respect of disbursement costs. It also held that Leeds had erred in determining the charge by reference to the CPSR. Leeds initially sought and was granted permission to appeal against the decision. However, the appeal was not pursued. Notably, the Commissioner argued before the FTT in the Leeds case that the question of what would constitute a lawful charge could not satisfactorily be resolved without a reference to the Court of Justice of the European Union. That argument was not supported by Leeds or the APPS claimants. The FTT decided that it could resolve the appeal without a reference and so none was made.

These issues have now resurfaced before the First-Tier Tribunal in East Sussex County Council v IC & Property Search Company & the Local Government Association (EA/2013/0037), another property search case. In this case, the applicant requested answers to questions in the standard property search form issued by the Law Society, the CON29R form. The Council imposed a fixed charge for providing this information, the fixed charge having been calculated on the basis of the approach provided for in the CPSR (i.e. was a charge which was intended to produce a cost neutral result for the Council). The charge itself factored in not only disbursement costs, but also staff time, a portion of the Council’s overhead costs, office costs and a portion of the costs of maintaining the information systems from which the relevant information is derived.

In light of an analysis of preparatory legislative materials for the Directive, the Commissioner conceded that costs beyond mere disbursement costs could in principle be factored into the charge. In particular, he argued that staff time spent searching for the information could be included. However, he disputed that other costs (e.g. overheads, office costs and the costs of maintaining the relevant information systems) could lawfully be included. However, the Commissioner’s position before the FTT was that, notwithstanding his concession, there remained substantial uncertainty as to what constituted a permissible charge under the Directive and a reference to the CJEU was still warranted. The other parties to the appeal ultimately agreed that this was an appropriate course.

The FTT has now decided that there should be a reference for a preliminary ruling. The questions being referred are:

(1) What is the meaning to be attributed to Art 5(2) of Directive 2003/4/EC and in particular can a charge of a reasonable amount for supplying a particular type of environmental information include:

(a) part of the cost of maintaining a database used by the public authority to answer requests for information of that type;

(b) overhead costs attributable to staff time properly taken into account in fixing the charge?

(2) Is it consistent with Arts 5(2) and 6 of the Directive for a Member State to provide in its regulations that a public authority may charge an amount for supplying environmental information which does “… not exceed an amount which the public authority is satisfied is a reasonable amount” if the decision of the public authority as to what is a “reasonable amount” is subject to administrative and judicial review as provided under English law?”

Hopefully the CJEU will in due course agree to give a preliminary ruling. In the meantime, local authorities and those engaged in the property search industry will have to wait with baited breath.

Anya Proops acts for the Information Commissioner.

Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin

The Prince Charles veto: JR fails due to availability of JR

As Chris Knight reported this morning, judgment has been handed down in R (Evans) v HM Attorney General [2013] EWHC 1960 (Admin). The Upper Tribunal had ordered disclosure of certain correspondence between Prince Charles and government ministers (termed ‘advocacy correspondence’). The government – the Attorney General specifically – exercised the power of veto under section 53 of FOIA. The requester, Guardian journalist Rob Evans, brought judicial review proceedings. The Administrative Court dismissed his claim.

It did so despite “troublesome concerns” about the section 53, which it considered to be a “remarkable provision”.

For example, the Lord Chief Justice said: “The possibility that a minister of the Crown may lawfully override the decision of a superior court of record involves what appears to be a constitutional aberration” (paragraph 2); “It is an understatement to describe the situation as unusual. Indeed the researches of counsel suggest that it is a unique situation and that similar statutory arrangements cannot be found elsewhere in this jurisdiction” (paragraph 9); “It is not quite a pernicious “Henry VIII clause”, which enables a minister to override statute but, unconstrained, it would have the same damaging effect on the rule of law” (paragraph 10).

Nonetheless, a close examination of the wording and features of section 53 satisfied the court that it was not flawed on constitutional grounds. Parliament was mindful of what it was doing in enacting section 53. There are strict time limits and limits on who can issue a section 53 certificate; it must be laid before Parliament with reasons, it must be made on “reasonable grounds” and “the jurisdiction of the courts does not even purport to be ousted” (paragraph 81 in the judgment of Davis LJ). In effect, Parliament chose to build section 53 into a FOIA as an express check and balance on disclosure.

The Lord Chief Justice summed up the court’s assessment of section 53: “These provide that the ministerial override will be ineffective unless reasonable grounds for its exercise are identified. These reasons must be laid before Parliament for scrutiny and, if appropriate, parliamentary action. Making the reasons public in this way ensures that they are also immediately available for press and public scrutiny and, if appropriate, critical comment. More important, perhaps, is that the override decision of the minister is not final. The exercise of the override is itself subject to judicial scrutiny” (paragraph 13).

The court considered the meaning of “on reasonable grounds”, the key language from section 53. What standard did this connote? Davis LJ said “reasonable” meant just that: it did not needed to be glossed either by reference to Wednesbury standards, nor by reference to any higher standard.

The court was persuaded that the statement of the Attorney General’s reasons in this case did indeed demonstrate “reasonable grounds” for the decision. The Attorney General had guided himself by the government’s published policy which states that the veto will only be used in exceptional cases. He had considered and engaged with the Upper Tribunal’s decision. He addressed both FOIA and the EIR. He gave his view that great weight should be attributed to the importance of the convention of preparation for kingship, the need to avoid a chilling effect on related communications, the preservation of confidences and the need to avoid damage to the perception of political neutrality. The Commissioner himself had agreed with those factors and conclusions in his decision notice.

In the court’s view, the Attorney General’s reasons ‘made sense’. There can be “cogent” arguments for and against disclosure (as indeed the Upper Tribunal acknowledged were present in this case), and FOIA/EIR public interest assessments are not so much matters of fact or law (or a mix of both), but are exercises in evaluation. In that light, if it was said that the Attorney General could not simply prefer his own opinion to that of the Upper Tribunal, the rhetorical answer was “why not?”. Moreover, he was entitled to address the correspondence as a whole, rather than on a document-by-document basis.

Mr Evans had also argued that insofar as the veto related to environmental information, it was incompatible with the “access to justice” provisions of the Aarhus Convention and of the Environmental Information Directive. The court was not persuaded: the availability of judicial review sufficed for those purposes.

The Guardian has announced its intention to appeal.


It should also be remembered that this is not the only strand of the Rob Evans/Prince of Wales letters litigation. As Panopticon reported earlier this year, the Upper Tribunal has separately ordered disclosure of a schedule describing the withheld information. That decision is also subject to appeal: it has not (yet?) been vetoed. The saga continues.

Robin Hopkins

EIR: when is information ‘held’?

One of the issues which commonly arises for information law practitioners is the question, which arises under both FOIA and the EIR, of whether a public authority actually holds the information which has been requested. The leading case on section 1(1) FOIA is University of Newcastle v IC & British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection [2011] UKUT 185 (AAC), [2011] 2 Info LR 54 and substantially the same approach has been adopted in, for example, Keiller v IC and University of East Anglia [2012] 1 Info LR 128 and Clyne v IC & London Borough of Lambeth [2012] 2 Info LR 24 in relation to regulation 3(2) EIR. What is required is a common-sense and non-technical approach. That, of course, is easier stated than applied.

The issue arose again in Holland v IC & University of East Anglia (EA/2012/0098). Like Keiller, this case was concerned with the Climatic Research Unit (“CRU”) at UEA, the source of the so-called ‘Climategate’ controversy. Readers will recall that in November 2009 there was an unauthorised disclosure of a large number of emails concerning work undertaken at the CRU. The ensuing controversy led the university to set up the Independent Climate Change E-mail Review (“ICCER”) chaired by Sir Muir Russell, which reported in 2010.

Mr Holland, who had made a submission to the ICCER, requested “copies of all of the information held” by it. A lot of information had been published on the ICCER’s own website, and essentially what remained, the tribunal found, was the Review’s “working papers”. It seems not to have been in issue that they were in the physical possession of Sir Muir Russell or his solicitors and not UEA. The issue was, therefore, whether the information was held ‘on behalf of’ UEA for EIR purposes. The Commissioner thought not, and the tribunal agreed with him.

Directing itself by reference to BUAV as well as a number of other FTT decisions, the Tribunal decided that it needed first to examine the nature of the legal and practical relationship between UEA and the ICCER/Sir Muir Russell. It found that the inquiry could have been conducted internally, but that UEA had decided to externalise it not, as Mr Holland had argued, in order to avoid its obligations under FOIA and the EIR, but “at a time when UEA’s credibility was very much at stake, in order to inspire confidence in the independence of the findings” (para 104). It went on to find that there was nothing in the EIR, nor in the Aarhus Convention, which prevents public bodies from externalising functions or which means that environmental information thereby created is necessarily held by the public body (para 105). Although there was no written document evidencing a contract between Sir Muir and UEA, the Tribunal found that a contract did exist (para 108). It did, however, express considerable surprise at the absence of a written contract and of the fact that “there was no discussion … about the information that would be received or generated by the ICCER” (para 110). Nevertheless, the Tribunal accepted that both parties had proceeded on the assumption that UEA would have no claim to or be able to access the information and that it would be held by the ICCER on its own behalf (para 114).

The Tribunal went on to hold that there was no other sense in which the ICCER was beholden to UEA or in which its independence was compromised. It was not, as Mr Holland had argued, merely a ‘sham’: “we do not find it likely that [UEA] would have compounded its problems so greatly, and risked its credibility so completely, by setting up an inquiry that was independent in name only” (para 116). Neither the involvement of a Professor Boulton on the Review panel (who had previously worked for UEA) nor the decision not to publish the Appellant’s submission in full affected the fundamental independence of the ICCER (paras 117-118). It followed that the information requested was not held ‘on behalf of’ UEA and the appeal therefore failed. Interestingly, the Tribunal did perhaps give some succour to Mr Holland by saying in para 122 “It may be that the information should be held by the UEA and there may be good reason why, barring anything provided in confidence, the information should be passed to the UEA to form part of its historical records. Were that to happen, then in the future, the information may be held by the UEA.” Leaving aside the question-begging first sentence (why, in EIR terms, ‘should’ UEA hold this information?), the second sentence is an important reminder that the answer to the question of whether information is held is one which is liable to change over time and with circumstances.

Edd Capewell

EIR Exemptions and Aggregation : a round trip

The First-Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) has ruled on the appeal by the Office of Communications (Ofcom) which was remitted following the Supreme Court’s judgment in Ofcom v IC [2010] UKSC 3, [2011] 1 Info LR 1288 (which itself followed the decision of the Court of Justice of the European Union in Ofcom v IC [2011] 2 Info LR 1). By its new decision of 12 December 2012 the Tribunal declined to depart from its previous decision which was made back on 4 September 2007.

This lengthy circular journey began with a request in January 2005 by a representative of Health Protection Scotland for a list of mobile phone base stations held on the “Sitefinder” website  and for information that was not publically accessible through Sitefinder such as grid references for each base station. The information was requested under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR).

 Ofcom refused and relied on the exemption under regulation 12(5)(a), contending that the public interest favoured withholding the information since public safety would be adversely affected by the precise disclosure of the base sites. In particular, this would reveal the locations of the relevant database and thereby assist possible criminal activity. Ofcom also relied on regulation 12(5)(c), contending that the public interest favoured withholding the information because the intellectual property rights of the mobile network operators (MNOs) would thereby be adversely affected giving competitors an undue advantage.

 On 11 September 2006 the Information Commissioner (ICO) ordered disclosure, ruling that public safety would not be put at risk and also that regulation 12(5)(c) was not engaged. Ofcom appealed.

 In its 2007 decision the Tribunal upheld the ICO’s decision, taking the view that the purpose of Sitefinder was to permit important health research and that this comfortably outweighed any risk to the public from disclosing the information sought and any adverse effect to the public interest arising from prejudice to MNOs’ intellectual property rights. In particular it took the view that the exception would be made unworkable if it had regard to disadvantages the public might suffer if the MNOs, piqued by disclosure, decided permanently to withdraw their co-operation with Sitefinder.

 Ofcom appealed unsuccessfully to the Administrative Court on a number of issues but, on a further appeal to the Court of Appeal, succeeded on one i.e. whether the public interest in maintaining the two relevant exemptions could be aggregated – as opposed to the public interest balance being struck on each exemption separately.

 The ICO, undeterred, appealed this question to the Supreme Court. The Justices, unable to agree on the answer, referred it to the European Court which ruled that a public authority in these circumstances “may, when weighing the public interests served by disclosure against the interests served by refusal to disclose, in order to assess a request for that information to be made available to a natural or legal person, take into account cumulatively a number of the grounds for refusal set out in that provision.” The word “may” would prove to be rather important.

 The Supreme Court remitted the case so that the Tribunal could reconsider the public interest balance. And there this eventful journey ended with a second decision which largely echoed the first.

 The Tribunal (chaired by Tribunal Judge Marks QC) endorsed the ICO’s approach that aggregation is a right, not  a duty, so a decision maker will consider whether to aggregate but is not bound to do so. Aggregation may not always be appropriate, e.g. where the exemptions relied upon are so different that the exercise would not be feasible. The aggregation exercise is “impressionistic” rather than “mathematical”.

 What undid Ofcom was that the weight given to the exemptions was very limited. In respect of public safety, despite references to possibilities of crimes ranging from metal theft to terrorist attack, it was held that such risks already existed as a result of information already available so that disclosure of further information would not make much difference. As to intellectual property rights, the interests in question were held to be more private than public. And in each case, either they were already at risk or “the enhanced risk is so small as to be given no significance”. Once again the Tribunal ruled that it would not be appropriate to ascribe weight to any ongoing non-participation by MNOs.

 Aggregation did not alter these conclusions. The two exemptions were characterised as “apples and pears”, with no real link and thus no “sensible way of extracting or recognising, let alone applying, any common content as to public interest or interests”. But even when aggregated, the overall weight to be given to them was adjudged to be minimal. Where such minimal harm was difficult to identify and characterise in view of the large amount of information already in the public domain, an “impressionistic” approach would not lead to a different result.

 This case, believed to contain the first full consideration of aggregation, therefore does not give the impression that aggregation will be an especially powerful tool. The emphasis was on the ruling that a decision maker or tribunal may, but not must, aggregate.

 However, it remains to be seen whether future cases may bring further analysis of the “apples and pears” approach. Whilst different exemptions may protect quite different aspects of the public interest, it does not necessarily follow that the value of protecting the public in two different ways is not cumulatively greater than the value of protecting them in only one. If aggregation for some reason is “not feasible”, that is the end of the matter, but debate can be expected to continue on how often it will actually not be feasible to conduct a suitably “impressionistic” comparison of the totality of interests for and against disclosure.

Charles Bourne