Under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 a decision by the Information Commissioner is capable of being appealed to the First Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) by either the public authority involved or the Complainant. There is no cost in brining an appeal and parties are generally responsible for paying any legal costs that they incur (public authorities will often be represented as will the Commissioner; sometimes by Counsel). Under The Tribunal Procedure (First-tier Tribunal) (General Regulatory Chamber) Rules 2009 the Tribunal has, on the application of a party, the power to award costs. It can do so where the appellant has acted unreasonably in brining or pursuing the appeal.
Earlier this month the First Tier Tribunal issued a decision, Mark Snee v the Information Commissioner and Leeds City Council, in respect of an application for costs against an Appellant by Leeds City Council. The Council were seeking their £20,000 costs in full, having applied to be joined to the appeal and having been represented by Queens Counsel. The Appellant in the case, Mr Snee, was represented by Counsel. The Tribunal’s decision contains some useful information with regards to heir approach to such applications.
Mr Snee’s requests had been refused by the Council on the grounds that they were vexatious (section 14(1) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000). The Commissioner and the Tribunal agreed that they were vexatious, and it was at that stage the City Council applied under Rule 10(1)(b) of the Tribunal Rules for costs.
One of the Council’s arguments, which was not accepted by the Tribunal, would have had a fundamental effect upon an individual’s right to appeal to the Tribunal. It was argued that, because Mr Snee’s requests were vexatious he had acted unreasonably in bringing the case to the Tribunal. The Tribunal did not agree. It pointed out that the Commissioner had the opportunity to refuse to issue a decision notice where he found the complaint to be frivolous or vexatious, and the Tribunal had the power to Strike out an appeal upon the application of a party where it has no hope of succeeding. The Tribunal stated that it was right to remember these protections against vexatious or hopeless appeals. Automatically making appeals against a decision that requests are vexatious subject to the costs provisions where the appeal fails would have a significant impact upon the appeal rights of an individual. The Tribunal considered that “it must be possible, depending on the circumstances, for the maker of a request regarded by everyone else as vexatious, to defend his or her position on that point without automatically being treated under the costs Rules as behaving unreasonably.” In other words, it must be possible for an individual who makes a request which is considered to be vexatious to defend their position in the Tribunal.
In the Tribunal individuals who are appealing against the Commissioner’s decision in respect of their FOI request will often not have the benefit of legal advice. Thus, what might appear to a fully trained lawyer to be “futile or wrongheaded”, the Tribunal considered that “it would be wrong to assume that the challenge is inevitably an unreasonable one for the citizen to bring.” The comments had a much more general application than that and equally well apply to a range of other Tribunals within the First Tier Tribunal structure where Legal Aid is not available, or is available only in very limited circumstances.
It seems, from this decision, that the chances of an appellant facing a costs order for an Appeal against a decision of the Information Commissioner are unlikely; although it remains a possibility that costs will be awarded in exceptional circumstances; quite what those circumstances will be remains to be seen. It seems more likely that an unreasonable appeal will be struck out during the early case management stages than for it to progress to a full hearing, thus preventing the generation of significant costs for all involved.