Registered Social Landlords and the Scottish EIRs

On 2 June 2014 the Scottish Information Commissioner issued a decision notice finding that Dunbritton Housing Association Limited, a Registered Social Landlord (“RSL”), was a Scottish public authority for the purposes of the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 (the Scottish EIRs).  In that decision the Commissioner ordered the Housing Association to conduct an internal review and to respond to the requester accordingly.  Dunbritton Housing Association did not appeal that decision to the Court of Session, as was open to it.

It transpires that Dunbritton Housing Association complied with the Commissioner’s decision and conducted an internal review.  It released some information and withheld the remainder under Regulations 10(5)(e) and Regulation 11(2) of the Scottish EIRs.  The requester made a fresh application to the Commissioner seeking a decision on two matters: (1) whether Dunbritton had identified all of the information falling within the scope of the request; and (2) whether Dunbritton Housing Association was correct to apply the exceptions that it had.

What is interesting is that after not appealing the Commissioner’s decision to the Court of Session and after complying with the Commissioner’s decision by conducting a review and responding to the request, Dunbritton again tried to argue that it was not a Scottish public authority for the purposes of the Scottish EIRs.  The Scottish Information Commissioner, once again, decided that it was.

Dubritton referred to the UK Upper Tribunal’s decision in Fish Legal and argued that the control test within both the UK EIRs and the Scottish EIRs was a high one.  It contended that although the Scottish Housing Regulator had significant regulatory powers over RSLs like Dunbritton it only utilised those powers where a RSL was failing.  It argued that it was therefore not a Scottish public authority for the purposes of the Scottish EIRs.

The Commissioner concluded, correctly, that she is not bound by the UK Upper Tribunal decision and instead looked to the decision of the Court of Justice of the European Union in the Fish Legal case.  She determined, for the same reasons as set out in her previous decision that Dunbritton Housing Association is a Scottish public authority for the purposes of the Scottish EIRs.

There are now two decisions of the Scottish Information Commissioner determining that a RSL is a Scottish public authority for the purposes of the Scottish EIRs, albeit involving the same requester and the same RSL.  Her decision has expressly been based upon the decision of the Court of Justice of the European Union in one case and in the other was made following that Court issuing its decision.  It seems fairly certain that future RSLs that try to argue that they are not Scottish public authorities in applications to the Commissioner will not succeed; although the Commissioner’s decisions are not binding on anyone (including herself), these two decisions begin to show a clear and consistent line of thinking.  It is open to Dunbritton to appeal the decision to the Court of Session – whether or not a person is a Scottish public authority is clearly a question of law.  It remains to be seen whether Dunbritton does appeal.  While an appeal might be successful and create binding case law that RSLs are not Scottish public authorities for the purposes of the Scottish EIRs it could equally go the other way and create binding precedent that states they are.  While there is no binding case law it remains possible for Dunbritton or another RSL to convince the Commissioner that she got it wrong in the two previous decisions.  At this stage it remains a case of waiting and seeing; Dunbritton have 42 days from the date the decision was intimated to lodge any appeal.

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A problem with the Scottish EIRs

The Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 (“Scottish EIRs”) give individuals the right to request and obtain, subject to certain well defined exceptions, information in relation to the environment from Scottish public authorities.  They implement into the law of Scotland Directive 2003/4/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council on public access to environmental information (“the Directive”).  The Directive in turn implements the Convention on Access to Information, public participation in decision-making and access to justice in Environmental Matters done at Aarhus, Denmark on 25 June 1998 (“the Aarhus Convention”) into EU law.

In Scotland, like the rest of the UK, the Scottish EIRs are an adjunct to Freedom of Information.  The Scottish EIRs sit alongside the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (“FOISA”) and the Scottish Information Commissioner has the same powers of enforcement in respect of the Scottish EIRs as she does in respect of FOISA.  By virtue of Regulation 17 of the Scottish EIRs, Part 4 of FOISA applies to the Scottish EIRs.  The Regulations make certain amendments to Part 4 of FOISA for when it is being read in respect of the Scottish EIRs.

Section 48 of FOISA provides that no application can be made to the Scottish Information Commissioner in respect of three scottish public authorities: (1) the Commissioner herself; (2) a Procurator Fiscal; and (3) the Lord Advocate, where the information relates to his role as head of the systems of prosecution and the investigation of deaths in Scotland.  Essentially, this means that the Scottish Information Commissioner is prohibited from accepting any application for a decision by anyone that relates to the handling of a request for information under FOISA and the Scottish EIRs made to the Commissioner’s Office and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (“the COPFS”).  I’m not a fan of this section and think it ought to be repealed in its entirety, but that is a subject for another time.  As far as the Scottish EIRs are concerned this section is a problem.  Essentially, once the Commissioner’s Office and the COPFS have conducted an internal review there is nowhere else for the requester to go if they remain dissatisfied with the response.

Article 6(2) of the Directive provides that:

In addition to the review procedure referred to in paragraph 1, Member States shall ensure that an applicant has access to a review procedure before a court of law or another independent and impartial body established by law, in which the acts or omissions of the public authority concerned can be reviewed and whose decisions may become final. Member States may furthermore provide that third parties incriminated by the disclosure of information may also have access to legal recourse.

The review procedure under paragraph 1 is essentially the internal review procedure provided for by Regulation 16 of the Scottish EIRs.  In respect of every other scottish public authority covered by the Scottish EIRs there exists a right to make an application to the Scottish Information Commissioner and have a decision notice issued by her office together with the ability to appeal (on a point of law only) that decision notice to the Inner House of the Court of Session, and then on to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.  There is a decision of a third party that is capable of becoming final.  Therefore, Article 6(2) of the Directive is complied with.  However, these appeal rights do not apply in respect of requests made to the Commissioner’s Office and the COPFS.

It should be theoretically possible to judicially review the internal review response of both the Commissioner and the COPFS.  At a first glance that might be thought to satisfy the requirements of Article 6(2) of the Directive; however, the wording of the Directive suggests that Judicial Review may not be sufficient.  Judicial Review is not an appellate procedure; it is a review procedure.  The Court of Session cannot substitute its own decision for that taken by the public authority.  The Court of Session could, in a judicial review, determine that irrelevant factors had been taking into consideration in respect of assessing the public interest where a qualified exception has been applied; it could not determine that the public interest does or does not support the maintaining of an exception.   Essentially, all the Court can do is uphold the decision of the Commissioner’s Office or the COPFS, or it can quash the decision – it cannot re-take the decision (something that the Commissioner effectively has the power to do when considering an application under section 47(1) of FOISA).  Therefore, judicial review cannot be a “review procedure… in which the acts or omissions of the public authority concerned can be reviewed” because it can only do so to a limited extent.  Therefore, for all practical purposes the decision of the public authority is final, not the decision of a court or another independent and impartial body established by law.

Furthermore, judicial review is expensive and comes with considerable risk in relation to expenses.  While it is theoretically possible for an applicant to represent themselves in the Court of Session, in all likelihood it will necessitate the instruction of a solicitor and at least junior counsel (if not junior and senior counsel); that is expensive.  Even if an applicant manages to represent themselves in the Court of Session; the court fees will be prohibitively expensive to many people.  These fees, payable at various stages throughout the process, will total hundreds of pounds.  The public authority in question will be represented by Counsel and if a requester loses, they may find themselves responsible for paying the public authority’s expenses (although, the Court does retain an inherent discretion in whether to make an award of expenses and to what extent the losing party shall pay the winner’s expenses).  This is relevant because the Aarhus Convention, upon which both the Directive and the Scottish EIRs are based, requires the review processes to be free of charge or inexpensive or not prohibitively expensive (Article 9).  The Court of Justice of the European Union found that the UK had failed to properly implement the Directive when looking at the costs under the English judicial system (see European Commission v United Kingdom).

The problem for the Scottish EIRs gets bigger once consideration is given to the Scotland Act 1998Section 57(2) of the Scotland Act provides that the Scottish Ministers have “no power to make any subordinate legislation, or to do any other act, so far as the legislation or act is incompatible with any of the Convention rights or with EU law.”  The Scottish EIRs are regulations and are therefore subordinate legislation.  By applying section 48 of FOISA to the Scottish EIRs the Scottish Ministers have made subordinate legislation that is ultra vires – it is outside of their competence.  For the Scottish EIRs to be compatible with EU law, section 48 of FOISA cannot apply to them; while it does, the Scottish EIRs do not fully implement Article 6 of the Directive.

This problem is easily resolved.  The Scottish Ministers simply need to amend the Scottish EIRs so as to disapply section 48 of FOISA in respect of the Scottish EIRs.  This would enable the Commissioner to consider applications made to her under section 47(1) of FOISA concerning requests for information made to either her office, or the COPFS that engage the Scottish EIRs.  Of course, the Scottish Ministers could introduce legislation into the Scottish Parliament to repeal section 48 of FOISA altogether (and that would kill two birds with one stone).

If the Scottish Ministers do not choose to make the relevant amendments they could be forced to.  All it would take is for someone to go through the process of making a request for environmental information to either the Commissioner or the COPFS, getting a refusal notice which is then upheld at internal review, and making an application to the Scottish Information Commissioner so as to get a notice from the Commissioner stating that no decision falls to be made.  This can then be appealed to the Court of Session for them to make what appears to be an inevitable decision: the Scottish Ministers acted ultra vires when applying section 48 of FOISA to the Scottish EIRs – an expensive process, but one that someone will eventually go down some day.

The Black Spider Letters – Part III

This is the third in a series of four blog posts looking at the Supreme Court’s decision in R (Evans) v HM Attorney General.  The first post went through the background to the case, while the second post focused on the Court’s decision in respect of section 53 of the FOIA.  This third post will look at the Court’s decision in respect of Regulation 18(6) of the EIRs.

By a majority of 6:1 the Supreme Court held that the certificate issued by the Attorney General under Regulation 18(6) was invalid.  The arguments in respect of Regulation 18(6) related specifically to European law and to the Directive that they seek to implement.

Article 6 of the Directive makes provision for ‘Access to Justice’ in respect of Environmental Information.  It provides (1) that where a public body refuses to make environmental information available there must be a process whereby the decision can be ‘reviewed administratively by an independent and impartial body established by law’.  The right to complain to the Information Commissioner under section 50 of the FOIA (which extends to the EIRs) would meet this requirement; (2) that over and above the administrative review of the decision that there is provision for further review before a court or another independent or impartial body established by law.  This would be covered by the right of appeal against a decision of the Information Commissioner to the First-Tier Tribunal; and (3) the decision under (2) must be capable of becoming final and binding upon the public body that holds the information.

The effect of section 53 as applied to environmental information under Regulation 18(6) of the EIRs is to mean that the decision of the Tribunal (or whichever appellate Court or Tribunal last hears an appeal) ceases to be final or binding on the public body holding the information; the Certificate cancels out the decision of the Court or Tribunal.  The Attorney General had argued that the provisions of section 53 and Regulation 18(6) in respect of Environmental Information did not violate the terms of the Directive; he argued that, despite the effect of the Certificate being to set aside the decision of the Tribunal, there was still the ability for a decision of a Court to become final and binding upon the public body concerned.  He based that averment on the existence of Judicial Review: a decision by an accountable person to exercise their power under Regulation 18(6) as read with section 53 is open to be judicially reviewed.

In respect of the Attorney General’s argument, Lord Neuberger said at [105]:

A domestic judicial review does not normally involve reconsideration of the competing arguments or “merits”. However, it seems to me clear that article 6.2, with its stipulation that the court should be able to “review” the “acts and omissions of the public authority concerned”, requires a full “merits” review. Even assuming in the Attorney General’s favour that, on a domestic judicial review, the court could, unusually, consider the merits, it gets him nowhere at least in a case such as this, where a tribunal has ruled that the information should be disclosed and the certificate is merely based on the fact that he disagrees with the final decision of the Upper Tribunal. In such a case, a court would be bound to conclude that the certificate was not soundly based as a court of record had already decided that very point as between the applicant and “the public authority concerned”.

Lord Mance said at [148]:

what becomes final in the event of judicial review failing, is not a decision on the merits that the Upper Tribunal’s decision is wrong. It is the conclusion that there is nothing wrong with the minister’s or Attorney General’s decision to override the Upper Tribunal’s decision. That cannot be consistent with the evident intention of article 6(2) – to provide means of recourse to a court or similarly independent and impartial system, which will decide, one way or the other, on the merits.

As a consequence of the views of 6 of the 7 Justices who heard the case, Regulation 18(6) is no more. It has ceased to be. It rests in peace.  It is an ex-Regulation.

The Black Spider Letters – Part II

This is the second in a series of four blog posts looking at the Supreme Court’s decision in R (Evans) v HM Attorney General.  The first post went through the background to the case and this post will focus on the Court’s decision in respect of section 53 of the FOIA.

By a majority of 5:2 the Supreme Court held that the certificate issued by the Attorney General was invalid.  However, there was a split among the 5 as to the reasons for the certificate being invalid.  Lords Neuberger, Kerr and Reed were in agreement with one another, while  Lord Mance and Lady Hail found that the Certificate was invalid for different reasons.  Lords Wilson and Hughes disagreed entirely and would have allowed the Attorney General’s appeal.

The reasoning of Lord Neuberger (with home Lords Kerr and Reed agreed)

The Justices here looked at two constitutional principals which are at the cornerstone of our democracy and are at the very centre of the Rule of Law.  The first of those principals is that decisions of a Court are binding upon the parties involved, subject to rights of appeal (and as Lord Neuberger pointed out, a Statute passed by Parliament given the supremacy of Parliament in our democracy).  The second of those principals is that the decisions of the Executive are reviewable by the Judiciary, not the reverse.

Lord Neuberger said, at paragraph [52], that the way in which the Attorney General interpreted section 53 of the FOIA

 “flouts the first principle and stands the second principle on its head. It involves saying that a final decision of a court can be set aside by a member of the executive (normally the minister in charge of the very department against whom the decision has been given) because he does not agree with it. And the fact that the member of the executive can put forward cogent and/or strongly held reasons for disagreeing with the court is, in this context, nothing to the point: many court decisions are on points of controversy where opinions (even individual judicial opinions) may reasonably differ, but that does not affect the applicability of these principles.”

He went on to state at paragraph [58] that “section 53 falls far short of being “crystal clear” in saying that a member of the executive can override the decision of a court because he disagrees with it.”  This drew on a line of authority, fully set out in paragraphs [53] – [57], that concludes unless Parliament has made it crystal clear that it is legislating contrary to the rule of law it is to be presumed that it is not doing so.

Lord Neuberger went on to consider previous authorities where the Court of Appeal had considered the question of whether Parliament had “intended [that] a member of the executive to be able freely to consider, or reconsider, for himself the very issues, on the same facts, which had been determined by another person or a tribunal.” [60]

Lord Neuberger concluded that section 53 of the FOIA  does not permit the accountable person mentioned therein to issue a certificate “simply because, on the same facts and admittedly reasonably, he takes a different view from that adopted by a court of record after a full public oral hearing.”  He also noted that the basis for this conclusion could not have bene unknown to Parliament at the time the FOIA was passed.

Lord Mance (with whom Lady Hale agreed)

The conclusion reached by Lord Neuberger was different to that which was reached by Lord Mance (who Lady Hale agreed with).  They found that the accountable person was able to issue a certificate under section 53 of the FOIA simply because they disagreed with the Tribunal’s decision; however, that where the certificate was issued in respect of findings of fact or rulings of law which were fully explained would require an extremely clear justification.  Lord Mance found that the Certificate issued by the Attorney General under section 53 of the FOIA did “not engage with or give any real answer to [the Upper Tribunal’s] closely reasoned analysis and its clear rebuttal of any suggestion that a risk of misperception could justify withholding of disclosure.”

While the Attorney General, or indeed any other accountable person as defined by section 53, could issue a certificate under section 53 because he disagreed with the findings of the Tribunal, on the same facts and arguments as were before the Tribunal, he did not justify his decision enough to enable the certificate to stand and so the certificate was invalid.

The Black Spider Letters – Part I

Yesterday, 26 March 2015, the UK Supreme Court issued its much anticipated decision (well, certainly within Information Law circles) in R (on the application of Evans) and another v HM Attorney General.  I had intended to deal write just one blog post on this decision, but as I began to write I felt that it deserved to be split up into more than one post; so, there will be four parts.  The first part will deal with the background to the case, including dealing with the relevant statutory provisions.  The second part will look at the Supreme Court’s decision in respect of section 53 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.  The third will look at the decision as it relates to Regulation 18(6) of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 while the final part will be a more general comment.

On 1 January 2005 the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIRs) entered into force.  In the case of FOIA it provides individuals with a statutory right to receive information held by public bodies unless the information is specifically exempt under one of the statutory exemptions in Part 2 of the Act.  The EIRs provide for a statutory right of access to ‘Environmental Information’ held by public bodies, subject to certain exceptions set out in the EIRs.  The EIRs implement into UK law the provisions of Directive 2003/4/EC of the European Parliament and the Council of 28 January 2003 on public access to environmental information (the Directive).  These Regulations in turn implement into European Law the provisions of the Aarhus Convention.

In April 2005 Rob Evans, a journalist at the Guardian Newspaper, wrote to a number of Government departments making requests for information.  Those requests concerned letters that had passed between the Price of Wales and those departments.  In each case the Departments withheld the information.  FOIA provides that individuals who are dissatisfied with how their request for information has been handled can complain to the Information Commissioner and this right of complaint is extended to cover requests for information under the EIRs as well.  The Information Commissioner issued a series of Decision Notices upholding the decision of each Department to withhold the information.

FOIA provides for a right of appeal, by either party, to the First-Tier Tribunal (Information Rights).  Rob Evans appealed to the Tribunal.  The appeals were joined together and transferred to the Upper Tribunal for consideration.  On the 18 September 2012, almost 7 and a half years after the requests were made, the Upper Tribunal issued a lengthy judgment (which was accompanied by a number of lengthy annexes, some closed and some open) partially allowing Rob Evans’ appeal.

The judgment by the Upper Tribunal is an example of excellent judicial writing.  It set out a clear and cogent argument as to why it was allowing Mr Evans’ appeal to the extent that it did.  It is clear that the Tribunal took great time and effort in compiling it.  At play here are a number of constitutional conventions; one of which is the convention enabling the heir to the throne to be instructed in the business of Government in preparation for becoming the reigning Monarch.  Another important convention is that the Monarch should be politically neutral.  The Monarch has a constitutional role as an advisor and confident to the Prime Minister of the day and political neutrality is an important aspect of that constitutional role.

It was well known, even before these protracted proceedings, that The Prince of Wales would write many letters to Government giving his opinion and advocating causes that he held dear to him.  The Tribunal drew a distinction between this type of correspondence, to which they referred to as ‘advocacy correspondence’ and the correspondence which related to the Prince’s instruction in Government business in preparation for him becoming King.

The Tribunal decided that the advocacy correspondence ought to be disclosed while that which related to his preparation for kingship was correctly withheld and should not be disclosed under FOIA or the EIRs.

It was open to the Government to appeal this decision, but it chose not to.  Section 53 of FOIA and Regulation 18(6) of the EIRs gives the power to an accountable person to, within twenty working days of a decision notice being served, to issue a certificate on the basis that he has on reasonable grounds formed the opinion that, in respect of the request or requests concerned, there was no failure to comply with the relevant disclosure provisions under FOIA and the EIRs.

In this case, as the information in question related to a previous Administration, it was the Attorney General who was the ‘accountable person’.  This follows from the convention that only the Attorney General is entitled to see the papers of a previous Administration.  As a consequence of this, the Upper Tribunal’s decision ceased to have effect; none of the correspondence would be released under FOIA and the EIRs.

Rob Evans lodged proceedings for Judicial Review of the Attorney General’s decision to issue a Certificate pursuant to section 53 and Regulation 18(6).  The Administrative Court dismissed his appeal and he appealed again to the Court of Appeal.  The Court of Appeal allowed his appeal and quashed the certificates, but gave leave to appeal to the Attorney General.  The Attorney General appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court, by a majority, dismissed the appeal by the Attorney General.  As a consequence, the decision of the Upper Tribunal stands and the advocacy correspondence will now be released.  The next two posts will look at the Supreme Court’s decision in respect of Section 53 and Regulation 18(6).

ICO to appeal HS2 veto

It has been reported that the Information Commissioner is to make an application for Judicial Review of the decision by the Secretary of State for Transport to issue a certificate under section 53 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (‘the FOIA’) in respect of the Commissioner’s decision that the project assessment report pertaining to the HS2 project should be released under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (‘the EIRs’).

The Commissioner’s decision to make an application for judicial review is undoubtedly underpinned by the decision of the Court of Appeal in the case of R (Evans) v Attorney General and Information Commissioner in which the Court of Appeal decided that the use of the ‘veto’ under section 53 of the FOIA was unlawful in respect of information which is environmental in nature.  I have written on the Evans decision here, and so don’t propose to repeat anything that is contained in that post.

In his decision dated 6 June 2013 the Commissioner found that the information contained within the report was Environmental Information, and consequentially it fell to be considered under the EIRs rather than the FOIA.  The Cabinet Office, who were the public authority concerned, relied on Regulation 12(4)(e).  The Commissioner found that the exemption was engaged, in that the information concerned amounted to internal communications.  However, he decided that the public interest in maintaining the exemption did not outweigh the public interest in releasing the information.  As a result the Information Commissioner ordered the Government to release the information contained within the report.

As the information amounts to Environmental Information, and following the decision of the Court of Appeal, the Secretary of State’s certificate under section 53 is unlawful.  It should be noted that the Evans decision is subject to an appeal to the Supreme Court by the Attorney General.  It is possible that the Supreme Court could over-turn the Court of Appeal’s decision in that case which states that the veto is unlawful in respect of Environmental Information.

Some interesting times ahead in the world of FOI.

Princes, letters and Freedom of Information

Yesterday the Court of Appeal issued its judgment in the continuing saga that is the bid by Guardian Journalist Rob Evans to obtain the information contained in a variety of letters sent by HRH Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales to a number of departments of Central Government between 1 September 2004 and 1 April 2005.

The saga has been a long one in which the Information Commissioner agreed with the Government.  However, the Upper Tribunal disagreed and ordered a number of the letters to be released.  The Upper Tribunal found that the letters fell into two categories: those which were about the Prince of Wales preparing to become Monarch and those which were him advocating in respect of causes which were close to him.  It was this latter category of letters that the Upper Tribunal found after determining that they were not covered by the constitutional convention which provides that the heir to the throne be educated in Government business in order to prepare him (or her) for becoming King (or Queen) and that correspondence pertaining to that be confidential and not be released.

After the Upper Tribunal issued its decision the Attorney General issued a certificate under section 53 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) which sets aside the decision of the Upper Tribunal.  Mr Evans judicially reviewed that decision and the Administrative Court upheld the certificate.  Mr Evans then appealed to the Court of Appeal which quashed the Attorney General’s certificate.

There are two separate issues to the certificate.  The first one that I shall deal with here, is the EU dimension to the case.  Some of the information contained within the letters amounts to Environmental Information which falls to be governed by the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIRs).  Those Regulations exists to transpose into domestic law a EU Directive on access to Environmental Information which in turn exists to bring into EU law the provisions of the Aarhus Convention.  Therefore the principles of EU law apply to the Environmental Information and the domestic law cannot be incompatible with it.  In its judgment the Court of Appeal held that the existence of the veto was incompatible with EU law.  This effectively means that the veto contained in section 53 of the FOIA cannot be used in respect of information which is environmental in nature (as defined by the Directive and the Regulations).

The Directive which the EIRs transpose into domestic law provide that there should be an independent and impartial tribunal to decide upon whether a  public authority has complied with its obligations, and that the decision of this independent and impartial body must be final. The EIRs have, by virtue of the application of the FOIA, an extensive appeals structure which begins with a complaint to the Information Commissioner and subsequent appeal to a specialist tribunal followed thereafter by appeals on points of law potentially all the way to the Supreme Court.  While there is no single independent or impartial tribunal whose decision becomes binding, at some stage a decision will be made by an independent or impartial tribunal which is final and binding upon the public authority.  However, by virtue of section 53 of the Freedom of Information Act, it can be side-stepped by someone within the Executive (in this case the Attorney General).  The Divisional court, in its decision, held that the existence of the right to judicially review the decision to issue a certificate under section 53 of the FOIA.  However, the Court of Appeal disagreed.  The Master of the Rolls said at paragraph 55:

A judicial review of the certificate of an accountable person is substantively different from a review by a court or other independent body of the acts or omissions of “the public body concerned”. The focus of the two reviews is different.

The Court of the Appeal was of the view that as judicial review was focussed on the act of the person who issued the certificate, rather than on the public authority’s compliance with the EIRs, it was in breach of the requirements of European law; therefore it was unlawful.

The Court of Appeal also considered the Attorney General’s use of the ‘veto’ under section 53 in respect of the information contained in the letters which was covered by the Freedom of Information Act.  The Court held that in order for a section under section 53 to be valid, it had to be based on reasonable grounds.  The Court of Appeal decided that for the grounds to be reasonable there would have to be something more than simply disagreeing with the decision.  The Master of the Rolls gave some examples of what ‘something more’ might mean in paragraph 38 of the Court of Appeal’s decision:

a material change of circumstances since the tribunal decision or that the decision of the tribunal was demonstrably flawed in fact or in law.

Such an interpretation of the law clearly significantly affects the power of ministerial veto and its effectiveness.  It is also clearly against the intention of Parliament when it passed the Freedom of Information Act.  The veto was placed in the Act by the Labour Government that passed it as a central element of the Act – something to act as backstop to protect central government from inappropriate releases.  It was intended to place central Government in the position of being the final arbiter of what central government information is released under FOI.  It is a constitutional aberration as described by both the Divisional Court and the Court of Appeal, but that is what Parliament determined when it passed the law with section 53 in it.

The Court of Appeal quashed the Attorney General’s certificate which makes the Upper Tribunal’s decision requiring release of certain letters effective again.  It held that his certificate was unlawful in terms of all of the information it was intended to cover.  This is certainly a key judgment and is very interesting.  It engages with some important issues in respect of the ministerial veto, and it is a Court of Appeal decision.  However, as much as I agree in principle with the Court of Appeals decision, I think in terms of the legal matters I suspect that it is vulnerable to being overturned, at least in part, on appeal.

I am of the view that the Court of Appeal’s decision should be treated with a bit of caution.  In respect of the application of the veto  on Environmental Information, the Court of Appeal’s decision appears to be entirely correct.  The existence of the veto does not sit well with the requirements of the Directive and is most probably unlawful in terms of European law.  However, I suspect that the Court of Appeal has fallen into error in its interpretation of section 53 insofar as it relates to information covered by the Freedom of Information Act.  The veto was clearly intended to be used in the way the Attorney General used it when passed by Parliament.  It was Parliament’s clear will and it would be inappropriate to read things into the legislation that as so clearly against the will of Parliament.

The Attorney General has been given permission to appeal the Court of Appeal’s decision to the Supreme Court and it will be interesting to see what the Supreme Court has to say.  I suspect there will be a great deal of discussion around the meaning of the words ‘reasonable opinion’ in section 53.