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  UKUT 103 (AAC);  2 Info LR 43.
That question has recently been revisited. In GW v IC, Local Government Ombudsman and Sandwell MBC  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