Cyril Smith and the FTT

Although not a decision of any particular legal significance, it is perhaps worth mentioning the judgment last week of the First-tier Tribunal in Corke v Information Commissioner & Crown Prosecution Service (EA/2014/0012), if only because it is one of those relatively rare occasions on which the work of the FTT itself (as opposed to the information it results in) has been the subject of news coverage, ranging from the Daily Mail to the BBC.

The request was for disclosure of information relating to the now fairly notorious decisions made over time not to prosecute Sir Cyril Smith (a Liberal MP who died in 2010) for offences against children. The disputed material consists of two Minutes prepared by a CPS lawyer in 1998 and 1999. The first reviewed case papers considered in1970 and looked at the weight of the evidence, reflected on the changing approach to the investigation and prosecution of such crimes between 1970 and 1998 and considers bars to a prosecution being launched in 1998. The second considered two more allegations. The material contains the names of individuals concerned in the case in particular the youths who made allegations against Sir Cyril.

The CPS withheld information within the scope of the request, citing section 30(1)(c) (information held for the purpose of criminal proceedings), section 42(1) (legal professional privilege), and section 40(2) (third party personal data). The ICO issued a DN which held that the public interest was finely balanced, but upheld the refusal to disclose. Amongst other things, the ICO noted that the CPS had provided some public explanation of its past decisions and made clear that the same approach would be unlikely to be taken now.

The FTT disagreed with the DN and found that the public interest favoured disclosure of almost all of the requested information (with some redactions). It held that the safe space of the CPS would be unlikely to be harmed given the unique nature of the particular case involved, and the professionalism (and professional obligations) of CPS lawyers. It considered that the documents were in themselves significant historical documents which cast light on changes in the law as it has responded to the evolution of understanding of these crimes and changing social attitudes to them, as well as casting light on Sir Cyril himself. The unusual nature of the case also meant that the public interest in disclosing material covered by section 42 also favoured disclosure. Not surprisingly, the death of Sir Cyril Smith was also mentioned. The FTT redacted material which went beyond the names of the complainants, which might conceivably be used to identify them.

Christopher Knight