Why Evans gets the spiders

March 26th, 2015 by Robin Hopkins

I told you FOI was sexy.

The Supreme Court’s judgment in R (Evans) v Attorney General [2015] UKSC 21 has received vast amounts of media coverage – more in a single day than everything else about FOI has received in ten years, I reckon. No need to explain what the case was about – the upshot is that Rob Evans gets Prince Charles’ ‘black spider’ letters. Here’s why.

In other words, this post summarises why the judgment went Evans’ way 5:2 on the FOIA veto and 6:1 on the EIR veto. I leave aside the trenchant dissenting judgments (Lord Wilson on both FOIA and the EIRs; Lord Hughes on FOIA only), which merit a post in their own right.

FOIA and the ministerial veto

Three of the five JSCs who found that the Attorney General’s veto under FOIA was unlawful took the following view (that of Lord Neuberger).

The constitutional context and the restrictive view of section 53

“A statutory provision which entitles a member of the executive… to overrule a decision of the judiciary merely because he does not agree with it would not merely be unique in the laws of the United Kingdom. It would cut across two constitutional principles which are also fundamental components of the rule of law”, i.e. (i) that a court’s decisions are binding and cannot be ignored or set aside by anyone, and (ii) that the executive’s actions are reviewable by the court on citizens’ behalf. “Section 53, as interpreted by the Attorney General’s argument in this case, flouts the first principle and stands the second principle on its head” (paragraphs 51-52).

Therefore, if Parliament intends to permit the executive to override a judicial decision merely because it disagrees with that decision, it must ‘squarely confront what it is doing’ and make its intentions ‘crystal clear’. Section 53 FOIA is a long way from authorising such an override on the grounds of disagreement (paragraphs 56-58).

The upshot is that a minister cannot use section 53 to override a judicial decision simply on the grounds that, having considered the issue based on the same facts and arguments as the court or tribunal, he reaches a different view. In their context, and in light of the serious constitutional implications, the words “on reasonable grounds” in section 53 FOIA must be construed more restrictively: mere disagreement with the court/tribunal will not do.

The threshold is higher: a section 53 certificate will be lawful if there has been a material change in circumstances, or if facts or matters come to light at some point which (a) indicate that the judicial decision being overturned was seriously flawed, but (b) cannot give rise to an appeal against that decision. Such cases will be exceptional, but they are a real possibility, in Lord Neuberger’s judgment. Section 53 therefore retains some utility (see paragraphs 68, 77 and 78). Lord Kerr and Lord Reed agreed with Lord Neuberger’s restrictive view of section 53.

A less restrictive view of section 53

Lord Mance (with whom Lady Hale agreed) also found the Attorney General’s veto in this case to have been unlawful. He agreed that mere disagreement with the decision being overturned will not do. Lord Mance’s interpretation of section 53, however, is markedly less restrictive than that of Lord Neuberger: the accountable person is entitled under section 53 to reach a different view on the balancing of competing interests, even in the absence of the sorts of new considerations Lord Neuberger envisages, provided he gives properly explained and solid reasons against the background and law established by the judicial decision (see paragraphs 130-131).

There is thus more scope for a lawful veto on Lord Mance’s view – but his was not the majority view. Lord Neuberger’s more restrictive view commanded wider support. This makes a big difference to the future use of section 53.

What about First-Tier and ICO decisions?

Here are some further important implications addressed by Lord Neuberger.

This veto was against a decision of the Upper Tribunal, which is a court of record. Do the same stringent restrictions apply to an attempt to veto a decision of the First-Tier Tribunal? Answer: yes.

What about the ICO’s decisions? Is the threshold for a lawful veto equally high, or is it lower? Answer: it is lower, as the ICO’s evaluation can seldom be as exhaustive as that of a Tribunal. Nonetheless, the option to appeal to the Tribunal will be a relevant consideration: to use the section 53 power to achieve what you could also achieve by the more constitutionally appropriate route of an appeal may be an abuse of that power.

Those distinctions are important. Some section 53 certificates have been issued against First-Tier Tribunal decisions – the NHS risk register veto, for example. Others have been against ICO decisions – the High Speed 2 veto, for example. The Iraq war cabinet minutes have been the subject of two section 53 certificates – one against a Tribunal decision, the other against an ICO decision.

The EIRs and the ministerial veto

By comparison, the answer under the EIRs was relatively straightforward: Article 6 of Directive 2003/4/EC requires that refusals to disclose environmental information can be challenged before court whose decisions will be final. The ministerial veto provision does not square with that requirement. Environmental information cannot be the subject of the ministerial veto. These were the arguments advanced by Mr Evans, and by Tim Pitt-Payne on the ICO’s behalf. They were accepted by six of the seven JSCs.

So, a triumphant day for Rob Evans and The Guardian – and indeed for FOIA, the EIRs, transparency and the rule of law.

The outlook for the future use of section 53 is challenging, though there is nuance aplenty, even aside from the dissenting judgments.

Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin


Quite like a whale

February 24th, 2015 by Peter Lockley

As my colleague Robin Hopkins has warned, the decision of the Upper Tribunal in Fish Legal looks like a pretty big beast: sixty pages on whether water companies are public authorities for the purposes of the Environmental Information Regulations, applying the CJEU’s lengthy ruling on the points of principle (for which, see this post by Chris Knight).

(If you just need the quick answer: yes they are, by virtue of having ‘special powers’, but not by virtue of being under the control of a public body. For the detail, read on.)

In fact, while it could never be classed as a minnow, on closer inspection Fish Legal is not the monster it first seems (see Part 1 of the judgment here and Part 2 here). Fifteen of those sixty pages are appendices. More importantly, the decision poses, but declines to answer, some wider questions. Although Mr Justice Charles was sympathetic to the Information Commissioner’s request for guidance on how to identify a public authority, he stopped short of laying down ‘broad general principles’ on the question (paras.95-97). He gave shorter shrift to the water companies’ request that he list all of their powers which fell within the definition of ‘special powers’– a request made, apparently, with a view to lobbying Parliament to rid the companies of those powers, and so save them from the burden of EIR (para.98).

And one would hardly have expected him to address the question with the widest ramifications: if water companies are public authorities by virtue of their “special powers”, what of the various other privatised industries? It is, of course, a very fact specific analysis. Anxious electricity chiefs, rail bosses, and telecoms honchos will just have to read the judgment and consider how the ‘special powers’ and ‘control’ tests would apply to their own particular circumstances (see para. 110).



The UT had two issues before it: (i) whether the Information Commissioner had jurisdiction to decide whether a body was a public authority for the purposes of the EIR or FOIA (as he had purported to do), and therefore whether the UT itself had jurisdiction to hear the case, and (ii) whether privatised water companies in England and Wales are public authorities for the purposes of EIR, applying the principles set down by the CJEU following a referral from the UT (blog post here).

By the time of this, the second outing before the UT, the cast list had expanded significantly, bringing in several 11KBW counsel to join Anya Proops, who acted for the Information Commissioner before the CJEU. The Secretary of State was joined as a party and was represented by Julian Milford. The parties in two related cases, Cross v IC and the Cabinet Office and Bruton v IC and Duchy of Cornwall, were also invited to make submissions on the nature of the tests. Karen Steyn QC and Joseph Barrett appeared for Mr Bruton; Amy Rogers appeared for the Duchy. (Those cases will now go forward to be decided applying the Fish Legal principles.)


The jurisdiction issue

The Secretary of State argued that under s.57 FOIA, the First-Tier Tribunal only has jurisdiction over a decision notice issued by the Commissioner under s.50(3)(b) FOIA, and that the Commissioner had no jurisdiction to serve a decision notice on the issue of whether a body is a public authority. Section 50 is based on the premise that a request has been made to a public authority; these elements are anterior to the Commissioner’s jurisdiction and he has no authority to decide them within the framework of FOIA.

The UT rejected these arguments. It took the view that jurisdictional provisions are routinely based on certain assumed conditions, but this does not deprive the body in question of the jurisdiction to decide whether those conditions have been met. So the UT’s jurisdiction to hear an appeal on any point of law arising from a decision made by the FTT assumes that a decision has been properly made by a properly-constituted tribunal, but it does not mean that the UT cannot rule on whether those conditions are met in a given appeal (para 31).

The UT applied this reasoning to both a positive decision by the Commissioner that a body is a public authority, and a negative decision that it is not, even though the latter is not a decision notice under s.50(3) FOIA. To hold otherwise would mean that while a body could appeal against a positive decision, a requester would face the more expensive route of judicial review of a negative decision (para.37). Furthermore, the Commissioner would have no power under the similarly structured s.51 FOIA to require the information he needed to reach an informed decision that a body was not a public authority (para. 41).

After scrutinising the decision of the House of Lords in BBC v Sugar [2009] 1 WLR 430, the UT decided that there was nothing in the case that disturbed its conclusions on the point (paras.43-54).

The Commissioner therefore has jurisdiction to decide the issue, the FTT to hear appeals against his decisions and the UT to hear appeals against the decisions of the FTT.

The public authority issue

Two of the limbs of the definition of ‘public authority’ under the EIR were in issue. A finding that the companies fell within either would suffice to make them public authorities. (A little care is needed with the numbers of the provisions in question: Article 2(2)(b) of the Environmental Information Directive is transposed as Reg. 2(2)(c) of the EIR, and Article 2(2)(c) of the Directive as Reg. 2(2)(d) of the EIR.)


Persons performing public administrative functions – the ‘special powers’ test

The CJEU expanded on Art. 2(2)(b) of the Directive by explaining that persons ‘performing public administrative functions’ are

52 […] entities, be they legal persons governed by public law or by private law, which are entrusted, under the legal regime which is applicable to them, with the performance of services of public interest, inter alia in the environmental field, and which are, for this purpose, vested with special powers beyond those which result from the normal rules applicable in relations between persons governed by private law.

Only the parts underlined were in dispute in the case of the water companies, which clearly meet the rest of the test.

The UT declined to draw any conclusion from the fact that the CJEU had not seen fit to apply the principles to the facts of this case (paras. 99-100). It also rejected a suggestion that it should ask itself whether the companies’ powers were in the nature of State powers (as the Advocate General had suggested). That was because the definition of ‘State powers’ was unclear and ever-changing, and also because the CJEU had not adopted that test. In the end, however, the UT did adopt the State powers test ‘as a check’ – leaving the status of the test somewhat unclear (paras.113-117).

The main analysis focussed on the following powers of water companies:

Compulsory Purchase (under s.155 of the Water Industry Act 1991, “WIA”): this looks like a quintessential government power unavailable to ordinary citizens, but in fact the water companies enjoy the power at one remove: before exercising it they require authorisation by the Secretary of State, which they can apply for via a process set out in Schedule 11 to the WIA. Nonetheless, the provisions conferred a real, practical advantage on the water companies. Firstly, the application process afforded them privileged access to those advising the Secretary of State on whether to authorise a compulsory purchase. Secondly, it conferred significant commercial leverage on the companies in any negotiation to purchase land, even if they rarely resorted to it in practice (para 107).

Power to make byelaws (s.157 WIA): such byelaws  require confirmation from the Secretary of State, but as with compulsory purchase, the power still confers an advantage on the companies. The section confers power beyond that of any private landowner, since byelaws under s.157 can be backed by criminal sanctions, unlike a landowner’s licence. ‘Special powers’ extends to ‘special powers of enforcement’ (para. 110).

Power to lay pipes (s.159 WIA): this power was the subject of a detailed comparison with the powers ordinarily available under private law. The companies argued that the same powers could be acquired through a license or easement. While accepting that this was potentially so, the UT emphasised that private law typically requires consent of the parties to achieve such a result (through the law of contract or property). By contrast, the WIA gives the water companies effective power to compel this result (para.121).

Power to enter land (s.168 WIA): although there are powers within private law allowing entry to another’s land (eg self-help to abate a nuisance at common law), they are narrowly circumscribed (eg they require possession of neighbouring land). The water companies’ powers are both wider and deeper: they apply against any landowner in the company’s area of license, and they extend to surveying and even boring on the land (para.125).

Hosepipe bans (ss.76-76C WIA): these powers are unlike anything available at private law, and moreover are backed by criminal sanctions.

Since it was content that the companies enjoyed a cluster of special powers, the UT formally left open the question of whether one would have been enough (see para. 105). However its comment in conclusion that the powers mentioned were ‘sufficient, collectively in themselves and as examples of powers of the same type’ to meet the test (para. 130) suggests that some pattern of powers will probably be necessary before a body is considered a public authority.


Persons under the control of public authorities

The CJEU’s elaboration of Article 2(2)(c) set out the test for ‘control’ in the following terms:

68 […] this third, residual, category of public authorities covers any entity which does not determine in a genuinely autonomous manner the way in which it performs the functions in the environmental field which are vested in it, since a public authority covered by Article 2(2)(a) or (b) of the directive is in a position to exert decisive influence on the entity’s action in that field.

The test applies to the manner in which functions are performed, not the functions themselves: a body is not under control of the Government merely because its powers derive from statute (para. 133). There are two elements to the test: the body must (i) operate in fact in a non-autonomous manner, and (ii) do so because a public authority is in a position to control it (para. 134). In other words, although the public authority need not actually be exercising its powers of control, the existence of the powers must have a real constraining effect on the body in question (para.135). Furthermore, the test required the UT to look at the companies’ overall manner of performing their environmental services: it would not be enough to find control in ‘one or two marginal aspects of their business’ (para. 136).

As for prior authorities, Smartsource was simply no longer relevant: the task of the UT was to consider the issue afresh in the light of the CJEU’s ruling (para.137).

The UT was at pains to point out that ‘no legitimate business has complete freedom of action’: all operate in a framework of legal and commercial constraints. Something more is needed before one can say that they have lost their autonomy (paras 142-144).

The two counsel for the requesting parties sought to supply that ‘something more’ by advancing ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ examples of actual state intervention in the water industry: recommendations by the Secretary of State made on reviewing a Draft Water Resources Management Plan, and an enforcement notice issued by OFWAT in respect of the risk of sewer flooding in the Penketh area. These were dismissed as no more than ‘increased intensity of oversight at particular times and in respect of particular activities’ (para.148).

A list of potential interventions was also provided – an analysis of the Secretary of State’s powers under the WIA. Although these clearly put the Secretary of State ‘in a position to exert decisive influence’ over the water companies’ actions, they too were rejected as not demonstrating control. The UT’s first two reasons are a little puzzling. The first was that the powers are (to some extent) a substitute for the forces of competition, since water companies enjoy local monopolies (para. 151). This rather begs the question: the grant of a monopoly confers great power on a private entity, which needs to be limited in the public interest. Just because state control is a substitute for market forces, this does not stop it from being a form of control. The second reason was that ‘the risk of enforcement is at most only a marginal consideration for a reputable company’ (para.152). Really? Why then did OFWAT need to issue that enforcement notice for the Penketh sewers?

However, the UT went on to find that whatever the potential for intervention, the more basic aspect of the control test was not satisfied. Merely listing all the possible interventions distorted the picture of how the companies operate in fact, and only addressed the second element of the test. The UT’s overall conclusion on the control test was that ‘despite the extent to which there is scope to influence the companies’ decision-making on the way it delivers its services, the evidence does not show that that influence is actually exerted to such an extent that overall the companies lack genuine autonomy (para.153).

You might not have predicted this result if you had read the CJEU’s heavy hint on the question of control – see [71] of its judgment

The weight that the UT afforded to the companies’ status as ordinary private companies is one of the surprises of the judgment. And it will be one of the few points of comfort for other privatised utilities. Not many can be as heavily regulated as the water industry; perhaps they too can avoid at least this limb of the definition.


POSTSCRIPT: if you’ve come here from Robin’s post, you may be wondering what Lewis Carroll has to do with all this. Loyal reader (which you must be if you’ve got this far), your guess is as good as mine. Why is the section on the State powers test (paras. 113-117) headed ‘Hunting of the Snark’? Answers on an e-postcard please.


 Peter Lockley






February 23rd, 2015 by Robin Hopkins

Hot off the press: the Upper Tribunal has given its judgment in Fish Legal.

Applying the principles from the CJEU’s judgment of December 2013, it has held that the respondent water companies are public authorities for the purposes of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, by virtue of their “special powers”.

The issues and facts are complex, and the judgment is lengthy. It also makes reference to Lewis Carroll, who now somehow appears in two consecutive Panopticon posts.

The judgment is contained in these two documents: FISH LEGAL UT DECISON PART 1 and FISH LEGAL UT DECISON PART 2.

Analysis  of the judgment will follow on Panopticon shortly (thus the barrister dreamed, while the bellowing seemed to grow every moment more clear).

Robin Hopkins


Legal professional privilege does not automatically engage an EIR exception

May 6th, 2014 by Robin Hopkins

FOIA provides an exemption (s. 42) expressly for legal professional privilege; as is well known, there is ‘strong inherent weight’ in maintaining that exemption. What about the EIRs? LPP is not expressly mentioned, but regulation 12(5)(b) EIR applies to information the disclosure of which would adversely affect “the course of justice, the ability of a person to receive a fair trial or the ability of a public authority to conduct an inquiry of a criminal or disciplinary nature”. Does information attracting LPP automatically come within that exception? Many practitioners operate on the assumption that the answer is ‘yes’. The Upper Tribunal has on a previous occasion, however, left that question open: DCLG v IC and Robinson [2012] UKUT 103 (AAC); [2012] 2 Info LR 43.

That question has recently been revisited. In GW v IC, Local Government Ombudsman and Sandwell MBC [2014] UKUT 0130 (AAC), the Upper Tribunal answered ‘no’: just because LPP applies, it does not automatically follow that regulation 12(5)(b) EIR is engaged. Further analysis is needed – and the onus is on the public authority to make out its case on adverse effects on the course of justice etc.

The requester has complained to the Council about what was being emitted from the chimneys of two of his neighbours who were using wood-burning stoves. The Council obtained written legal advice from counsel. It told the requester it could not progress his complaint as he wished. He complained to the Ombudsman. The Council shared its legal advice with the Ombudsman, expressly on a confidential basis. The requester sought that advice from the Ombudsman. His request was refused. The IC’s decision went against him. So too did that of the First-Tier Tribunal.

The Upper Tribunal, however, found that the FTT went wrong in attributing too much weight to the prejudicial effects which it thought likely to arise “simply through the weakening of this important doctrine” [of LPP].

UT Judge Turnbull considered the wording of regulation 12(5)(b) EIR and said this: “In my judgment that requires attention to be focused on all the circumstances of the particular case, and there is no room for an absolute rule that disclosure of legally privileged information will necessarily adversely affect the course of justice”.

The crux, in his judgment was this: “What particularly matters for present purposes is in my judgment that the rationale for the doctrine and its absolute nature is established as being the need for the client to be able to obtain legal advice on a full and frank basis”.

In the present case, disclosure would be unlikely to prejudice that underlying principle – the Council’s ability to obtain free and frank advice would not be impeded. “What might be damaged would be not the course of justice but the ability of the LGO to conduct future investigations on a fully informed basis” – but that was a different point to the one at the heart of the FTT’s reasoning. The FTT had thus gone wrong in its public interest analysis.

Interestingly, one factor in the UT’s reasoning appears to have been that it was not taken to “any particular part or feature of the Advice which the Council would be unhappy about disclosing, or pointed to any specific concern which it has about Mr W or the public in general seeing it. Nor has it been suggested, for example, that the Advice needs to be qualified because of some inaccuracy or incompleteness in the instructions to counsel. The weight to be accorded to the adverse effect on the course of justice in this case is in my judgment very substantially less than it would have been if the LGO had been able to rely on the weakening of the doctrine of LPP which compulsory disclosure of legal advice will almost always involve”. This offers useful indications of what, in this UT’s view, might suffice to engage regulation 12(5)(b) EIR in respect of information which attracts LPP.

The public authorities also sought to rely on regulation 12(5)(d) EIR (confidentiality of proceedings). By regulation 12(9), however, that exception cannot be relied upon “to the extent that the environmental information to be disclosed relates to information on emissions”. Did that disapplication provision bite here? No, said the UT: “In substance the Advice did not “relate to” information as to the particular nature and extent of those emissions, but rather it related to the meaning and effect of the legislation”. In this case, regulation 12(5)(d) EIR was engaged.

Turning to the public interest balance, a preliminary point addressed by the UT concerned timing: matters post-dating the statutory time for compliance with a request can only properly be taken into account to the extent that they shed light on matters as they stood up to that time, or if they are relevant to the IC’s ‘steps discretion’ under s. 50(4) FOIA. They are not otherwise relevant to the public interest balance.

What might count in favour of the disclosure of privileged information? “In my judgment, therefore, when considering this issue it is relevant to consider not only whether the Council (and/or the LGO) made statements which were positively wrong, but whether they made statements which were liable to mislead or confuse the reader, and so have generated a confusing picture as to the effect of and reasoning behind the Advice”.

In this case, while there was no intention to mislead, “the combined effect of the information which the LGO and the Council had given up to this point was liable to create substantial confusion, in the mind of any reasonable reader, as to what the Advice did say”.

As to the public interest in maintaining the exception, the main factor was “the effect which disclosure would have on the ability of the LGO to obtain legally privileged information from local authorities on the footing that it should remain confidential” – especially given that the Ombudsman cannot compel local authorities to share such information with it. There would thus be a chilling effect on such information-sharing.

In contrast, the unfairness to the Council of having its legal advice shared with the requester was a relatively weak factor.

Overall, however, the balance very firmly favoured the maintenance of the exception. In this case therefore, the likely damage to the LGO’s work prevailed where LPP had not.

Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin


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

February 13th, 2014 by Robin Hopkins

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


Chagos Refugees Group in the First-Tier Tribunal: some key points

September 24th, 2012 by Robin Hopkins

The Chagos Archipelago forms part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (“BIOT”). In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the inhabitants of the Chagos Islands were required to leave those islands. At or around that time, a US military base was established on Diego Garcia, the largest of the Chagos Islands. The removal of the “Chagossians” has been a matter of considerable political and media debate, as well as complex legal proceedings. Two legal challenges are ongoing: Chagos Islanders v UK before the European Court of Human Rights, and Bancoult (No 3) before the domestic courts.

In 1999, the then Foreign Secretary commissioned a feasibility study concerning the possible resettlement of some of the islands. A preliminary study was conducted, followed a “phase 2B” study conducted by external consultants. The final report of the phase 2B study was made public. There was some ministerial correspondence about the studies.

In April 2010, representatives of the Chagossians sought information from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office about these studies. In particular, they asked for any draft versions of the phase 2B study (and any accompanying reports), as well as related ministerial correspondence.

The FCO disclosed some information, but withheld one note to a minister (Baroness Amos). As regards the draft reports, it claimed that – if these existed at the time of the request – they were held by the external consultants who authored them. The FCO maintained that the consultants did not hold that information “on behalf of” the FCO for the purposes of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004. The Commissioner upheld the FCO’s position.

The Tribunal (chaired by Andrew Bartlett QC) upheld the Chagossians’ appeal in part. A disclaimer to the following analysis: I appeared for the Information Commissioner. The post below is not a commentary on the case, but (with my Panopticon hat on) I highlight some of the points of general interest to FOIA and EIR practitioners. For a broader commentary on the case, see the excellent post from David Hart QC on One Crown Office Row’s UK Human Rights Blog.

The Tribunal in Chagos Refugees Group in Mauritius and Chagos Social Committee (Seychelles) v IC and FCO (EA/2011/0300) agreed with the FCO that information held by the consultants was not, at the date of the request, held “on behalf of the FCO” for EIR purposes. The Tribunal applied the guidance on the approach to “held” from University of Newcastle v IC and BUAV [2011] UKUT 185 (AAC), [2011] 2 Info LR 54 (see paragraphs 59-67). Generally, whether information is “held” will be a question of fact, but the Tribunal added that “we would also wish to qualify the proposition in McBride v IC and Ministry of Justice (EA/2007/0105) that whether information is held on behalf of a public authority is “simply a question of fact”. In some cases it will be important to determine the exact nature of the legal relationship between a person holding information and the public authority, or to determine the legal structure pursuant to which information was created and held” (paragraph 61).

The Tribunal analysed both the factual and legal relationship between the FCO and the consultants in reaching its conclusion. Its decision should be given careful attention when considering whether information is “held on behalf of” a public authority.

On the adequacy of the FCO’s own searches, the Tribunal said this at paragraph 70:

“… we consider it is relevant to draw attention also to the Tribunal’s remarks in the context of a FOIA request in Muttitt v IC (EA/2011/0036) (31 January 2012) at [68], to the effect that a search should be conducted intelligently and reasonably, and that this does not mean it should be an exhaustive search conducted in unlikely places: those who request information under FOIA will prefer a good search, delivering most relevant information, to a hypothetical exhaustive search delivering none, because of  the cost limit.”

As to the Baroness Amos note, the Chagossians were largely successful in their appeal: disclosure was ordered, bar a few redactions. In its analysis, the Tribunal considered the time at which the public interest was to be assessed. It has become almost trite in FOIA and EIR cases that the answer to this question is “at the time of the request or, at the latest, the date at which the public authority ought to have responded”. This question is, however, not altogether settled. In this case, the Tribunal was content to assess matters up to the date of the conclusion of the FCO’s internal review (see paragraphs 22-29). On a similar point, the UpperTribunal in Evans (see my earlier post on this) by no means considered it beyond doubt that matters should only be assessed at or shortly after the date of the request.

The Tribunal considered that weighty public interests would be served by disclosure of the contents of the Baroness Amos note, despite that being only a small amount of information. At paragraph 112 it said this:

“The amount of information in a potentially disclosable document is without doubt a material matter to take into account. At the same time, it is important not to discount unduly the significance, in the public interest, of the disclosure of small amounts of information. Publicly useful freedom of information requests are generally limited in scope. If too broad, they face the obstacle under FOIA of the costs limit, and under the EIR of the proportionality requirement. If the Tribunal were to take an unduly minimalist view of the value of the publication of relatively small amounts of information on matters of considerable legitimate public interest, this would materially reduce the effectiveness of the legislation. We would regard this as tending to conflict with the general purpose of  the legislation, as seen in the authoritative remarks in Sugar v BBC [2012] UKSC 4 at [76]-[77], which in our view apply with equal force to the EIR, particularly in view of the presumption in favour of disclosure found in EIR regulation 12(2).”

This outweighed the public interest in maintaining the exception for internal communications. Timing was key to the ‘safe space’ argument advanced by the FCO and the Commissioner. The Tribunal endorsed the approach taken in the Department of Health (NHS risk registers) case, whereby policy formulation can “dip in and out” of the need for a safe space. The Tribunal in this case concluded that (paragraph 123):

“We acknowledge the prospect that at some future date – perhaps in 2013, perhaps later – after the final conclusion of the two pending pieces of litigation, the resettlement policy is likely to be the subject of reconsideration. In our view that was at all material times, and remains today, a very weak reason for maintaining the confidentiality of a document written in entirely different circumstances in 2002.”

Robin Hopkins