We have posted a number of times on the contentious issue of late reliance, i.e. whether a public authority is entitled to rely as of right on an exemption or exception (under FOIA or the EIR) raised for the first time before the Tribunal. Last month, the Upper Tribunal answered this question with a firm “yes” in its decision on appeals by the Home Office and Defra, available here. That may not be the last word on this issue: Simon Birkett, founder of Clean Air London and Second Respondent to Defra’s appeal, has applied for permission to appeal that decision to the Court of Appeal. The press releases and grounds of appeal are available here.
My paper from last week’s 11KBW Information Law Seminar contains a number of updates on important developments – both recent and imminent – at Upper and First-Tier Tribunal levels.
One of the most important concerns the contentious question of late reliance: in particular, is a public authority entitled to rely as of right on an exemption it raises for the first time before the Commissioner or even the Tribunal? The Upper Tribunal has recently answered with a firm “yes”: the decision in the joint appeals from the Tribunal decisions in Home Office v IC, and DEFRA v IC and Birkett (GIA/1694/2010 and GIA/2098/2010) can be downloaded here; see also commentary by FOI Man on his blog here. As I mention in my paper, however, the Upper Tribunal may have more to say on this matter very shortly (in an appeal involving the All Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition) – so watch this space for updates.
Another imminent Upper Tribunal decision to look out for is the case of Gaskell. concerns an appeal against a Decision Notice involving the Valuation Office Agency. In that Decision Notice, the Commissioner found that – notwithstanding the public authority’s unlawful withholding of the requested information – he would not be ordering disclosure because of events (in this case, the coming into force of new legislation) arising after the time at which the request was handled. The appeal invites the Upper Tribunal to find that the Commissioner has no discretion to make such a decision based on events subsequent to the relevant time for his assessment.
The High Court has recently confirmed that the “costs of compliance” for FOIA purposes does not include the costs of redaction: see Chief Constable of South Yorkshire v IC ( EWHC 44 (Admin)).
Two notable EIR decisions are expected shortly, one at first instance in the GM Freeze case (which is expected to provide much-needed guidance on how widely the concept of “emissions” should be construed), the other by the Upper Tribunal in the Kirklees case (which is expected to clarify the question of imposing charges following a request to inspect information).
The latter case also saw this argument raised before the Upper Tribunal: a “purposive request” (i.e. one that takes the form “please provide me with the information I would need to answer the following questions”) is not a valid request for EIR and FOIA purposes.
Finally, the First-Tier Tribunal has recently heard an appeal by Channel 4, in which the appellant argued that contracts should be treated as whole, rather than severable documents, meaning that if part of the contract can be withheld, then the whole contract can also be withheld. The implications of this position would be substantial, so again – watch this space.
Shepard v IC and West Sussex County Council (GIA/1681/2010) involved the Commissioner upholding the appellant’s complaint against the local authority, and issuing a decision notice in his favour. That notice required the authority to search for specified information and to provide it to the Claimant if found. The authority informed the appellant that its search had been fruitless. Apparently therefore, it had complied with the decision notice, but the appellant received no information.
At first instance, his appeal failed, partly on the grounds of the well-established principle that a successful party should not be permitted to bring an appeal. The Upper Tribunal disagreed, and granted permission to appeal, observing that the aforementioned principle “surely relates to judicial decisions by courts and tribunals; it does not necessarily apply to decisions by administrative first-instance decision-makers or independent office-holders”.
Nor was the wording of FOIA itself a barrier to such appeals: section 57(1) expressly confers a right of appeal on both parties, and not simply “the losing party”. Furthermore, both the steps prescribed in a decision notice and the timing of such steps are matters of discretion for the Commissioner. Unlike the enforcement of a decision notice, such questions of discretion are within the Tribunal’s jurisdiction.
It is not clear, however, whether a challenge to a first-instance Tribunal’s refusal to entertain an appeal lies by way of an appeal to the Upper Tribunal or by way of judicial review. A test case (combined references of CH/1758/2009 and JR/2204/2009) will determine this question shortly. In the present case, the Upper Tribunal therefore granted permission to apply for judicial review as a precaution.
In Edwards v IC and the Ministry of Defence (EA/2010/0056), the Tribunal has exercised its power to strike out a party’s case under Tribunal Procedure (First-Tier Tribunal) (GRC) Rules 2009. This was done partly on a lack of reasonable prospects of success, and partly on jurisdictional grounds: some of the appellant’s grounds of complaint invited the Tribunal to “monitor or influence” the way in which the Commissioner had carried out his statutory duties, or the way in which the public authority had done so. The Tribunal has no jurisdiction over such matters.
Perhaps more interestingly, this was a case where the appeal was in effect academic, as the requested material had already been given to the appellant. The grounds on which a Tribunal may strike out an appeal are contained in rule 8(3) of the 2009 Rules: lack of reasonable prospect of success, non-compliance with an order or failure to co-operate with the Tribunal “to such an extent that the Tribunal cannot deal with the proceedings fairly and justly”.
At first glance, it is not obvious how any of those three exhaustive categories accommodate appeals which have become academic due to events post-dating the handling of the relevant request. The Tribunal in Edwards has provided its answer. The key provision is rule 8(3)(b), which concerns the fair and just dealing with proceedings. By rule 2(2) of the 2009 Rules, this includes considerations of proportionality, costs and resources. Rule 5 empowers the Tribunal to regulate its own procedure. In particular, rule 5(2) allows it to give a direction in relation to the conduct or disposal of proceedings at any time.
The combination of rules 2 and 5 can therefore suffice to engage rule 8(3)(b) and support a strike-out even where questions of jurisdiction or lack of reasonable prospects of success are not in play.
The minutes of the Cabinet meetings at which it was decided to go to war in Iraq have resurfaced for consideration by the Tribunal. First time round, the Tribunal agreed with the Commissioner that the minutes should be released, but the final word went to Jack Straw, by means of a ministerial veto – which was not subject to a judicial review challenge – issued under section 53 FOIA.
The requester in that case subsequently sought a backdoor route to the minutes, by requesting them under FOIA from the ICO itself. He also sought “background papers which show the processes of thought behind the Information Commissioner’s conclusion that the Cabinet minutes in question should be disclosed”. The ICO did not hold the minutes themselves, but it did hold some handwritten notes made by the then Commissioner, Richard Thomas, and by an ICO caseworker when visiting the Cabinet Office to inspect the minutes. It also held a confidential annex to the Decision Notice, which fell within the veto. All of these he refused to disclose.
The usual FOIA complaints and appeals process ensued, with the Commissioner issuing a decision notice in respect of his own refusal, and then defending that notice before the Tribunal in Lamb v IC (EA/2009/0108).
The basis of the refusal was section 44 FOIA, which provides that information is exempt if its disclosure is “prohibited by or under any enactment”. The Commissioner relied for the latter on section 59 of the DPA, which says that the Commissioner may not disclose information he obtained under the auspices of the Act “unless the disclosure is made with lawful authority”, which arises where “having regard to the rights and freedoms or legitimate interests of any person, the disclosure is necessary in the public interest”.
As the Tribunal accepted, this is a much higher threshold than the usual public interest test under FOIA: under section 59, there is effectively a presumption against disclosure.
The Tribunal was satisfied that this information was “obtained from” the Cabinet Office, notwithstanding the Appellant’s challenge on that point.
It also agreed with the Commissioner’s application of section 59. Much of the Appellant’s argument turned on the importance of the material he sought. This, said the Tribunal, overlooked the point that the Commissioner had already decided in the Appellant’s favour concerning the Cabinet minutes which he sought. The Tribunal also commented that:
“It is no part of the freedom of information regime to provide a mechanism by which a party who prosecuted a successful complaint to the Information Commissioner in the past may have his or her winning margin reassessed in the light of events subsequent to the date of the original victory”.
The Tribunal did not comment on whether the mere existence of the veto gave rise to the engagement or effectiveness of section 59. Nor did it speculate as to the circumstances in which reliance on section 59 could be defeated – although the wording of that section clearly envisaged this prospect.
The Tribunal has recently issued a ruling highlighting the dangers for a public authority if it submits an inadequately reasoned notice of appeal. In Westminster City Council v IC (EA/2010/0096), the Council had submitted a notice of appeal against the Commissioner’s decision notice within the 28 day time limit allowed for under rule 22 of the Tribunal Procedure (First Tier Tribunal) (General Regulatory Chamber) Rules 2009 (“the Rules”). However, the notice of appeal merely asserted that the Commissioner had erred in deciding that the EIR 2004 rather than the FOIA applied to the disputed information. The notice did not contain any grounds for this assertion. Thereafter, the Tribunal ordered the Council to provide grounds for its appeal. The Council was given a week to provide the relevant grounds. The Council missed that deadline. Moreover, it did so in circumstances where it had not notified the Tribunal that it needed an extension of time for lodging the grounds. The Council invited the Tribunal to overlook the three day delay in submitting the grounds. It alleged that the delay was due to staffing difficulties; the need to take legal advice; a failure to understand the tribunal procedures and a failure properly to record the date set by the Tribunal for submission of the grounds. The Tribunal refused to accept these arguments. It held that the Council was a large authority with a specialised in-house FOIA department; that an alleged lack of resources was not a valid excuse and that advice should have been sought at an earlier stage. Accordingly, the Tribunal refused to accept the grounds. There are two lessons to be derived from this ruling. First, an appellant which fails adequately to particularise its case in its notice of appeal or otherwise to follow up the notice promptly with fully reasoned grounds may well end up losing the right of appeal altogether. Second, where there are concerns that a tribunal deadline may be missed, the affected party should always consider notifying the tribunal of that fact and seeking an extension of time.
In a separate development, the Tribunal recently decided in Thackeray v IC (EA/2010/0088) that an appellant would not be allowed to proceed with his appeal in view of his refusal to provide the Tribunal with a postal address. Mr Thackeray had provided an email address in his notice of appeal but refused to provide a postal address, allegedly because he was concerned that he would face harassment if the address was disclosed. Mr Thackeray argued that provision of an email address was sufficient in order to meet the requirements of rule 22(a) and (c) of the Rules. The Tribunal decided that the notice of appeal would be invalid in the absence of the provision of a postal address. The Tribunal took the view that a postal address was a pre-requisite not least in view of: (a) the fact that parties may want, for reasons of security, to deliver documents directly rather than by email; and (b) a postal address would be required to protect the position of the other parties in the event that costs were awarded against the appellant. Unfortunately, neither of these rulings can at present be found on the Tribunal website.