EIRs, Environmental Information, Freedom of Information, Scots Law, Scottish EIRs

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.

Constitutional Law, Devolution, EIRs, Environmental Information, EU Law, FOISA, Freedom of Information, Information Law, Information Rights, Scots Law

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.

Constitutional Law, Devolution, English Law, Environmental Information, FOIA, FOISA, Freedom of Information, Human Rights, Information Law, Information Rights, Legal System, Public Law, Scots Law, UK Constitution

The Black Spider Letters – Part IV

This is the final 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, the second post focused on the Court’s decision in respect of section 53 of the FOIA and the third post looked at the Court’s decision in respect of Regulation 18(6) of the EIRs.

This was a significant decision for a number of reasons.  It significantly restricts section 53 of the FOIA and in essence makes it virtually impossible for the Executive to make use of it.  While this might seem, on the face of it, really good for transparency; it comes with a serious warning.  In 6 weeks time the UK will have a new Government and undoubtedly one of the first things that this new Government will want to do is address the decision of the Supreme Court in this case.  The current Government, which may be in its final hours, has previously hinted at making changes to the FOIA that would have a devastating effect on the effectiveness of FOI in the UK.  While addressing this issue the Government might be tempted to make other changes to FOI at the time.

While I fundamentally disagree with the principal that the Executive should be able to veto a decision made by the judiciary in respect of a cause in which it was a party, we do live in a system where Parliament has supremacy.  It is clear that Parliament intended that the Executive should be able to, in certain cases, veto a decision by the Tribunal that information should be disclosed.  For that reason, I disagree with the interpretation given to section 53 by Lords Neuberger, Kerr and Reed.  I find the position of Lord Mance and Lady Hale more in keeping with the intentions of Parliament.  It is my opinion that they struck the right balance between the intention of Parliament and the Rule of Law given the system in the UK and the wording of the statute.

The Regulation 18(6) issue is more problematic for the Government, and here I do think that the 6 Justices of the Supreme Court who held that Regulation 18(6) was incompatible with EU law got it correct.  The wording in Article 6 of the Directive clearly does not envisage the situation where the Executive, who will be the public body holding the information in question, is able to veto the decision of the Court.  It also seems clear from the wording of the Directive that it being open to a requester to judicially review the decision of the Executive to issue a certificate is not sufficient to comply with the review requirements therein.  Part of being a member of the European Union is to accept that EU law has supremacy, in passing the European Communities Act the UK Parliament agreed to have EU law take precedence over Acts passed by it.  Ultimately the UK Parliament is still supreme and would only need to repeal the European Communities Act (which would also necessitate the UK leaving the European Union, but that’s a whole other blog) in order to deal with the Supreme Court’s decision in respect of Regulation 18(6).

What is the impact for Scotland?  The decision in R (Evans) v HM Attorney General is technically not binding upon the Scottish Courts.  Section 41(2) of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 makes it clear that decisions of the Supreme Court on appeal form Courts in one part of the United Kingdom are “to be regarded as the decision of a court of that part of the United Kingdom”; there is an exemption to this which is not relevant here. Therefore, only decisions issued by the Supreme Court in Scottish cases are considered binding in Scotland (although in cases from other parts of the UK will be highly persuasive on the Scottish Courts).  As this was a case on appeal from England in respect of FOIA and the EIRs, it is only binding on the Courts in England and Wales.

Section 52 of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FOISA) provides the First Minister a similar power to that contained in section 53 of the FOIA in respect of decision notices served on the Scottish Administration.  The wording in section 52 is almost identical to that in section 53.  The main difference is around timescales, in that the First Minister has longer than the accountable person under FOIA to issue a certificate.  So, section 52 of FOISA is probably in a precarious position following the decision of the Supreme Court.

The Scottish legislation could face further hurdles that the UK legislation did not due to the constitutional position of the Scottish Parliament.  The Scottish Parliament is a creature of Statute, it has only those powers which are given to it by the UK Parliament and cannot do anything which exceeds those powers.  Section 29(2)(d) of the Scotland Act 1998 provides that no Act of the Scottish Parliament may be incompatible with the rights in the European Convention on Human Rights as given effect to by the Human Rights Act 1998.  There could be a viable challenge to section 52 under Articles 6 (the right to a fair trial) and 10 (freedom of expression).  If it were to be found that the Scottish Administration being able to veto the decision of the Commissioner and/or the Courts was incompatible with either or both of those Rights then section 52 would have no effect as it would be outside of the Scottish Parliament’s legislative competence.  It would be much harder for the Scottish Parliament to get round that, and it would probably require the UK Parliament to legislate on its behalf.

Regulation 17(2)(e) of the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 (the Scottish EIRs) has the same effect as Regulation 18(6) of the EIRs in that it applies section 52 of FOISA to the Scottish EIRs.  However, like the EIRs, the Scottish EIRs are designed to implement the 2002 Directive into domestic law.  The supremacy of EU law is further underlined by the Scotland Act 1998, which provides in section 57(2) that the Scottish Ministers have no power to make subordinate legislation (which the Scottish Regulations are) which is incompatible with EU law.  I don’t think that the Scottish Courts would find differently from the Supreme Court in respect of section 52 being incompatable with EU law when related to requests under the Scottish EIRs.  In the event that the Scottish Ministers appealed to the Supreme Court it seems unlikely that it would conclude differently (although it should be noted that at least one Justice would have found that Regulation 18(6) did not violate EU law).

Because of the timing of the Supreme Court’s decision, it means that there is little that can be done to prevent disclosure of the information that the Upper Tribunal decided should be disclosed.  The UK Parliament has now prorogued and dealing with the Supreme Court’s decision will require primary legislation. Parliament will be dissolved as soon as we hit 30 March; that means all of he seats will become vacant and there will be no MPs to pass legislation.  The deadline for the Government to comply with the Supreme Court’s decision expires before the election. Therefore, it seems almost inevitable that we will get to see the contents of these letters.

It should be noted that FOIA has been amended to make the correspondence from the Prince of Wales subject to an absolute exemption.  However, that does not affect the position under the EIRs.  The exceptions under the EIRs are different from the exemptions under the FOIA, although they broadly enable the same types of information to be withheld.  What this means though is that it is possible that further letters written by the Prince of Wales which relate to environmental matters may be disclosed in the future.

It is also worth noting that FOISA has not been amended to make the equivalent exemption in respect of correspondence with the Monarch, the heir to the throne or the next in line (i.e. The Queen, Prince Charles and Prince William) an absolute one.  It had been proposed by the Scottish Government, but was dropped.  Therefore, the full range of correspondence between the Prince of Wales and the Scottish Ministers is theoretically obtainable under FOISA and the Scottish EIRs, subject to the public interest test.

Case Note, Public Law, Scots Law

Case Note: City of Edinburgh Council against a decision of the Lothian Valuation Appeal Committee

On 9 April 2014 the Court of Session issued its decision in an appeal by the City of Edinburgh Council against a decision of the Lothian Valuation Appeal Committee. The Courts judgment can be read in full here. The case concerns liability for council tax while a property is uninhabitable as the result of renovation and construction works.

Facts

Mr Miller purchased a residential property in March 2007. The property was unfurnished and unoccupied. Following his purchase he requested that the Council assess the property to determine whether the property was habitable or uninhabitable. In May 2007 the Council duly carried out that assessment and found that the property was uninhabitable due to the major construction works being undertaken.

In December 2007 Mr Miller applied to the City of Edinburgh Council for a Building Warrant in order that he could construct an extension to the property. After delays, the Building Warrant was granted in November 2008. In July 2011 the City of Edinburgh Council determined that the property was still “unfit for human habitation…due to the extensive renovation work underway”. However, no statutory prohibition notice was served on Mr Miller.

In December 2012 the Lothian Valuation Appeal Committee held a hearing concerning the liability for Council Tax in respect of this property. Mr Miller’s solicitors argued that as it would have been an offence under section 21(5) of the Building (Scotland) Act 2003 for Mr Miller to inhabit the property, occupation of the property was prohibited by law and paragraph 7(a) of Schedule 1 to the Council Tax (Exempt Dwellings) (Scotland) Order 1997 was engaged. Mr Miller’s Solicitors argued that the property was exempt from council tax.

The Council argued before the Lothian Valuation Appeal Committee, and the Court of Session, that Section 21(5) of the Building (Scotland) Act 2003 was not engaged. It relied upon the fact that the works that the Building Warrant authorised had not been registered as having by the issuing of a Start of Works notice to the Building Standards department. The Council also argued that there had been no evidence that the works which the Building Warrant authorised (that is the construction of the extension) had commenced.

The Lothian Valuation Appeal Committee accepted Mr Miller’s argument and found that the property was exempt from Council Tax. The Council appealed.

Decision and reasoning of the Court

The Court of Session quashed the decision of the Lothian Valuation Appeal Committee.

The Court of Session accepted that the exemptions from the payment of council tax are located in Schedule 1 to the Council Tax (Exempt Dwellings) (Scotland) Order 1997 and that liability does not require there to be a person living in the property. The Court did not accept that section 21(5) of the Building (Scotland) Act 2003 was engaged in this case. However, the Court went on to say that even if section 21(5) of the Building (Scotland) Act 2003 was engaged it considered that occupation could include occupation for the purposes of carrying out renovations to a property. The Court did not accept that occupation could only mean habitation, indeed section 21(5) of the 2003 Act clearly draws the distinction by excluding occupation for the purposes of construction or conversion. The Court went on to say that paragraph 7(a) of the Council Tax (Exempt Dwellings) (Scotland) Order 1997 was not engaged as occupation was not prohibited by law; the property would have been occupied for the purposes of the renovation.

The Court also considered that the Council Tax (Exempt Dwellings) (Scotland) Order 1997 provided a specific exemption for the purposes of major repair work or structural alteration. These can be found in paragraphs 2 and 4 of Schedule 1. Paragraph 2 relates to dwellings which are under repair, and since 2000 has been limited to a period of 12 months since the day that the property was last occupied while paragraph 4 relates to dwellings which are both unfurnished and unoccupied. The Order places a restriction of 6 months since the last period of 3 months in which it was occupied. The Court considered that as there were specific statutory provisions, which were time limited, in respect of properties like that in this case, it would not be appropriate to read paragraph 7(a) in the way that the Lothian Valuation Appeal Committee had. The Court agreed with the City of Edinburgh Council that Parliament’s intention would be defeated with such an interpretation of the provisions.

Comment

This case deals with the statutory interpretation of the Council Tax (Exempt Dwellings) (Scotland) Order 1997. It is clear that properties that are undergoing substantial repair work, which prevents them from being inhabited, are entitled to an exemption from council tax only for a period of 12 months following the date at which they are vacated for the purposes of that work. It is not possible to escape the payment of council tax by simply obtaining a Building Warrant and then never obtaining the required Completion Certificate. While Section 21(5) of the Building (Scotland) Act 2003 prevents an individual living in a property which is undergoing conversion or construction and where no completion certificate has been accepted, it does not prevent its occupation in a way that would engage paragraph 7(a) of the Council Tax (Exempt Dwellings) (Scotland) Order 1997.

Environmental Information, FOISA, Freedom of Information, Scots Law, Scottish Information Commissioner

The new Scottish Public Authorities: Who are they?

On 1 April 2014 the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act (Designation of Persons as Scottish Public Authorities) Order 2013 (‘2013 Order’) enters into force and it is the first such Order made by the Scottish Ministers under section 5 of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (‘FOISA’) since FOISA entered into force.

The 2013 Order will make new bodies subject to the provisions of FOISA, and by extension* to the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 (‘Scottish EIRs’).  The 2013 Order does not list specific bodies which will become subject to FOISA and the Scottish EIRs, rather it describes the bodies that are to be made subject to FOISA and the Scottish EIRs. The Schedule to the 2013 Order has two columns, and the bodies which fall within the description in Column 1 will becomes subject to FOISA and the Scottish EIRs for their functions described in Column 2.

Column 1
By virtue of Column 1 a body which has been established or created solely by one or more local authorities who on behalf of any of those authorities developed and/or deliver recreational, sporting, cultural or social functions and activities, and are wholly or partially funded by any of those authorities will become subject to FOISA and the Scottish EIRs.

This refers to Arms Length External Organisations (ALEOs) established by one or more of the 32 local authorities in Scotland to develop and/or provide recreational, sporting, cultural or social functions and activities which receive funding from those local authorities. It is much wider than the section 6 provisions which relates only to companies wholly owned by one or more Scottish public authorities. This modification to FOISA will cover many different structures of organisations from Partnerships, Limited Liability partnerships, Trusts and many other different business structures.

Column 2
The bodies covered by the definition in column 1 will only be subject to FOISA and the Scottish EIRs in relation to their functions mentioned in Column 2. Column 2 refers to a number of sections of legislation which give local authorities the power to carry out certain factions. The functions are listed below with a brief explanation of what they mean.

Section 90 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973
This section gives local authorities the power to carry out certain functions in respect of tourism. This includes the provision, or encouragement of any other person to provide, facilities for leisure, conferences, trade fairs and exhibitions or improve, or encourage any other person to improve, any existing facilities for those purposes; the promotion, by advertisement or otherwise, of facilities provided by that local authority (whether such facilities are owned by the authority or otherwise); and the organising, or assisting others in the organisation of, and promotion, by advertisement or otherwise, conferences, trade fairs and exhibitions.

Section 163 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973
This section (or what is left of it) gives local authorities a duty to provide adequate library facilities for all persons resident in their area.

Section 14 of the Local Government and Planning (Scotland) Act 1982
Broadly speaking, this section places upon local authorities a duty to provide adequate provision of facilities for the inhabitants of their area for recreational, sporting, cultural and social activities.

Section 20 of the Local Government in Scotland Act 2003
This section provides for a general power for local authorities to do anything that it considers is likely to promote or improve the well-being of its area and/or any persons in its area.

What does it actually mean?

I am not so sure that any of the above actually brings us closer to understanding just who will be subject to FOISA and the Scottish EIRs following the entering into force of the 2013 Order. Some of the most notable examples though will include leisure trusts (which are not companies, who are already subject to FOISA and the Scottish EIRs) and bodies responsible for the provision, maintenance and development of library facilities.

There are certainly benefits to drafting the 2013 Order in this way. Had the Scottish Ministers simply listed specific bodies it would have become out of date very quickly. The provision of services by local authorities is very fluid and can change overtime. ALEOs can exist and then be merged or wound-up, their functions can be taken back in-house only to later be put out to another ALEO. It will largely protect against the fluidity of ALEOs and should hopefully ensure that we don’t see (at least in respect of services provided by local authorities) the reduction in information access rights that has been seen since the introduction of FOISA in 2005.

How to know if a body is covered
In the first instance it is going to be largely up to the individual body to determine if it is covered by the extension, and if so to what extent. In theory they should already have been making preparations by putting in place a publication scheme (which in practice will likley be simply to adopt the Commissioner’s Model Publication Scheme) and a framework for dealing with requests. However, there might have to be some testing of the law in respect of some bodies.

The easiest way to find out if a body is covered is probably to approach the body. If they say that they are then you can go ahead and make your request like you would to any other Scottish Public Authority (‘SPA’). However, if they say they are not you might have to be a bit more persistent. Ultimately, it will be for the Scottish Information Commissioner (as the person responsible for enforcing FOI law in Scotland) to determine whether a body is a SPA or not. She can only accept an application after a request for information has been made and a request for internal review has also been made. This will mean that it will be necessary to go through the process of submitting a request and either waiting for word from the body that they won’t respond or for 20 working days to elapse without a response before then submitting your internal review and again waiting for word from the body that they won’t respond or for 20 working days to elapse without a response.

A determination by the Commissioner that a body is (or isn’t) a SPA by virtue of the 2013 Order wouldn’t necessarily be the end of the road. A decision by the Commissioner that an application cannot be accepted by her is open to the possibility of an application for Judicial Review, while a decision notice issued against a body that disagrees with the determination that it is covered could be open to appeal to the Court of Session under section 56 of FOISA (and then to the Supreme Court).

*by virtue of Regulation 2 of the Scottish EIRs any body listed in Schedule 1 to FOISA or designated under Section 5(1) of FOISA is also subject to the Scottish EIRs.

Corroboration, Criminal Justice, Criminal Law, Scots Law

Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill: Stage One Debate

CJSB14Yesterday the Scottish Parliament had its Stage One debate on the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill, and the quality of the contributions from certain members was depressingly poor; some contributions are worthy of note because they were of a standard which should be seen from all members: John Finnie (IND) and Patrick Harvie (Greens) to name two.

Like many, I am of the view that corroboration does represent an important safeguard against wrongful conviction; however, I am not so wedded to the idea that I cannot see life without it. I do have a number of concerns though.

Firstly, there has been a lot of talk about cases not getting to court because of corroboration and how that limits access to justice for Complainers. There are two important factors to consider here: (1) it also limits access to justice for suspects. Even an arrest/detention (especially for something like rape) can be enough to permit a ‘bad smell’ to hang around the accused. (2) There will always be cases that do not proceed to trial because of a lack of sufficiency in the evidence. Removing the requirement for corroboration will not suddenly mean that every single case will proceed. Trials, especially High Court trials, are expensive and while justice ought not to be about money, it would be naïve to think that money doesn’t play a part – on a financial basis alone it would be impossible to have every case prosecuted.

What about this brave new world post-corroboration in Scotland? A lot has been mentioned in the debate about complainers in sexual offences and domestic violence cases; corroboration does provide assistance to these Complainers (although this point is almost never mentioned). It ensures it is never the case of the Complainer’s word against that of the accused. Where things get tricky in terms of rape complaints is around consent. There has to, as the law stands today, be corroboration of a lack of consent. Where does that come from? Lots of places: changes in behaviour by the complainer or third party evidence of the Complainer’s distress for example.  In such cases where evidence of distress is not available it would place even more stress upon the Complainer as it will be down to no more than who the jury believes more: the complainer or the accused.

Now, so far I’ve yet to deal with why I am actually against section 57. My main opposition to it passing in this Bill is the outstanding Bonomy Review.  The purpose of this is to work out the additional changes that will need to be made to the law of Scotland following the removal of the requirement for Corroboration. Let’s be clear this isn’t a minor technical change to the law of Scotland; it is absolutely fundamental. As such it is only right and proper that the Scottish Parliament knows what it is changing the law of Scotland to before they vote on such a fundamental proposal. Also, the very existence of the Bonomy review shows that the Parliament are voting on a partially thought-out proposal.  The setting up of a review to fix problems with legislative provisions, before they’ve even been voted on for the first time by the Scottish Parliament, should cause alarm bells to ring in the minds of every single Member of the Scottish Parliament.

Image credit: Scottish Parliament website licensed under the Open Scottish Parliament Licence v1.0
Image credit: Scottish Parliament website licensed under the Open Scottish Parliament Licence v1.0

During the debate yesterday Sandra White MSP made the preposterous suggestion that not abolishing the requirement for corroboration in this Bill was kicking the matter into the long grass. She was concerned that there would be insufficient time to deal with the matter before the next election, due in May 2016. The Bonomy review is due to report early next year, giving the Government and Parliament up to 15 months to draft a Bill and pass it; hardly a shortage of time!  Furthermore, the Cabinet Secretary has said he won’t be enacting section 57 until such times as additional safeguards are introduced. The reality is; it’s probably going to be at last a further 18 months before this section is actually enacted. Whether it is passed now, or in 2015 will make little difference, it’s unlikely to be fully enacted before late 2015 or early 2016 anyway. Therefore, there is no good reason as to why Parliament cannot consider the full package (i.e. abolition and the full package of safeguards together). Indeed, passing legislative provisions which Parliament knows are incomplete and not fully thought through is not what MSPs are paid for. This is not how a serious Parliament in a mature democracy ought to function.

What has struck me most about this debate is the way in which highly emotive cases have been used as the justification, and this has polarised the debate. This has lead to deplorable suggestions by some, such as Christina McKelvie MSP, that those opposing the move to abolish the requirement for corroboration were against victims of rape and domestic violence. Her exact wording was:

There is a significant number of victims of sexual violence and domestic abuse whose cases do not go to court. In the past two years, that has affected 2,800 cases of domestic abuse and 170 rape cases. The Tories, the Liberals and—astonishingly—the Labour Party might be happy with that, but I will not have that on my conscience.

Such suggestions are utterly unacceptable in Parliament by MSPs; in making that statement Ms McKelvie demeaned herself and demeaned Parliament. Quite simply it was shameful and completely indefensible behaviour.  She is not alone, some vocal people connected with various womens’ charities have been similar suggestions.

MacAskillKenny
Image credit: Scottish Parliament website licensed under the Open Scottish Parliament Licence v1.0

Finally, I turn to Mr MacAskill’s equally shameful closing statement in which he painted the opposition to section 57 as a ‘Better Together’ pact against the SNP. This ignores that Christine Grahame abstained on both votes, and that Patrick Harvey and John Finnie (both ardent supporters of ‘Yes Scotland’ and the later a former SNP member) both voted for the amendment proposed by Margaret Mitchell after also speaking against the Cabinet Secretary’s position  in the debate. The Cabinet Secretary’s suggestion that everyone not with him is against Victims of crime was another outrageous slur; indeed I heard not one speech in the debate that could have been characterised as being against victims. Everyone speaking in favour of Margaret Mitchells amendment was essentially saying this: we need to ensure that we retain an acceptable balance in the justice system that ensures safe convictions. That brings us to the nub of the issue: we must ensure that when people are convicted of crimes, especially ones that will inevitably result in lengthy custodial sentences, that those convictions are safe. It is not good for a victim to see someone convicted of an offence against them just for the Appeal Court to come along and quash that conviction.

We have to ensure that balance remains in the system, and the Cabinet Secretary’s position does not allow for that. It is not acceptable for Parliament to vote on such fundamental matters when they are incomplete with only a promise that sufficient safeguards will be introduced (by way of Secondary legislation which bypasses the full and rigorous scrutiny of Parliament) in due course. The Cabinet Secretary’s position is untenable on this issue, and he must remove section 57 from the Bill re-introducing it in Primary legislation alongside whatever other reforms Lord Bonomy proposes.

FOISA, Freedom of Information, Scots Law, Scottish Information Commissioner

Beggs v Scottish Information Commissioner and Strathclyde Police

In the world of Freedom of Information in Scotland decisions of the Court of Session are rare, and on 21 January 2014 the Court of Session delivered its decision in the case of Beggs v Scottish Information Commissioner and the Chief Constable of Strathclyde Police.

Background

Mr Beggs wrote to Strathclyde Police on 7 July 2010 to request information from the Chief Constable concerning the investigation into a murder for which he was convicted in 2001.  The way in which Strathclyde Police had handled the request was considered by the Commissioner in decision 88/2011 in which the Commissioner required Strathclyde Police was required to carry out a review of certain aspects of Mr Beggs request.  It should be noted that throughout the Commissioner’s decisions, Mr Beggs is known simply as ‘Mr G’.  Following that review, Mr Beggs applied to the Commissioner again for a decision in terms of section 47(1) of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (“FOISA”).  The Commissioner duly investigated that application, and that resulted in decision 251/2011 in which the Commissioner found that Strathclyde Police were correct to withhold the information under section 34(1) of FOISA and that they did not hold any further information in respect of parts of the request.

Mr Beggs appealed the decision to the Court of Session under section 56 of FOISA, such appeals can be on a point of law only (which is one of the ways in which FOISA differs from the Freedom of Information Act 2000 which covers UK public authorities).

The Exemptions

The exemptions cited by Strathclyde Police were contained in section 34 and section 35 of FOISA, both of which are exemptions which are subject to the public interest test; that is, the exemptions fall away where the public interest in maintaining the exemption is less than or equal to the public interest in releasing the information.

Arguments by Mr Beggs

Mr Beggs sought to argue that the Commissioner had erred in law in respect of his consideration of the public interest.  Counsel for Mr Beggs argued that the interpretation and application of the public interest was a matter of law.  Counsel for Mr Beggs argued that in respect of the various public interest factors which were considered by the Commissioner were not given the appropriate weight to them; that is, some of those factors ought to have been given a greater weight by the Commissioner than they were.

Sections 34 and 35 of FOISA clearly exist to protect the interests of justice; they exist to prevent information being released that might harm law enforcement and the judicial process.  Counsel for Mr Beggs argued that following the conclusion of a trial the level of force that protecting these interests have diminishes after the trial.  It was also argued that by focusing on generalised factors, and by not giving consideration to the specific circumstances in this case, the Commissioner had erred in law.

Arguments by the Commissioner

In respect of Mr Beggs’ arguments relating to the weight that the Commissioner ought to apply to the various public interest factors, the Commissioner argued that an error of law would not arise unless it could be shown that it was perverse or irrational.  Counsel for the Commissioner argued that no such evidence had been given.  Counsel for the Commissioner argued that smply because they were general didn’t meant that they were not relevant, and that Mr Beggs had placed before the Commissioner no specific arguments himself.

In responding to the reduction of the weight to be attached to the exemptions, Counsel for the Commissioner pointed to section 58 of FOISA which makes provision for some expiations “falling away”; in respect of section 35, FOISA provides that the exemption continues to apply for a period of 100 years.

Decision of the Court

The Court dismissed Mr Beggs’ contention that the Commissioner had failed to give sufficient weight to the various factors in this case.  The Court sets out the detail in which the Commissioner sets out the reasons for his decision and concludes that there was nothing perverse or irrational.  The Court stated at paragraph [15] that:

this ground of appeal amounts to is that the appellant does not agree with the weight which the Commissioner has attached to the various factors before him.  Such disagreement as to weight, in the absence of perversity or irrationality, does not amount to an error of law. It does not constitute “an appeal on a point of law” for the purpose of section 56 of the Act.

At Paragraph [20] of their judgment, the Court dismisses the argument that the “that the public interest in maintaining the exemption diminishes with the passage of time”.  In doing so it points to the provisions of FOISA in respect of section 35, and the terms of the explanatory notes in respect of section 34.

The entire appeal was dismissed

Comment

This was an interesting case dealing with the public interest test contained with FOISA.  Many of the exemptions are subject to the balancing of the public interest.  In doing so, public authorities are required to satisfy themselves that the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in releasing the information.  The test places the burden of proof entirely with the public authority.  Having the burden of proof with the authority is both fair and reasonable; after all, it is the authority that has access to the information and is seeking to prevent its disclosure.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to argue the public interest for a position of complete blindness.

Paragraph [20] of the Courts judgment does appear to be rather interesting.  The notion that the public interest in maintaining an exemption diminishes with time has been almost universally accepted; indeed it even features in the Commissioner’s guidance on the public interest test (page 5).  It would seem odd if the Court is interpreting the legislation in a way that it clearly never was intended to be construed.  The whole purpose of the public interest test is to ensure that information is only withheld when it is in the public interest to do so.  It will often be the case that the public interest in maintaining the exemption thirty or forty years after the information was created will be very different to what it was thirty or forty days after it was created.  In respect of section 35, my reading of section 58 leads me to the conclusion that the information that is part of that class is exempt (subject to the consideration of the public interest) for a period of 100 years; once 100 years have elapsed the exemption ceases to apply and there can be no question as to whether it is in the public interest or not.  I am not at all sure what the Court meant in paragraph [20], but I don’t think that it would have meant what it appears it said.

Of course what paragraph [20] means rests on the arguments put before the Court, and the Court has provided little in the way of detail on the arguments advanced by Counsel.  It is clear from the legislation that Parliament intends the exemption to cover all information falling within the class of information for a period of 100 years; however, it is equally clear that Parliament intended that information falling within the class protected at section 35 could be released before this period is up by making it a qualified (as opposed to an absolute) exemption.  It is necessary to try and read between the lines in order to attempt to fully understand what the Court was saying.

It would appear that perhaps Counsel for Mr Beggs was attempting to argue something slightly different; his Counsel appeared to be suggesting that post-trial there is very little interest in keeping the information secret.  That is not a position that I would agree with, even if the legislation did not make it abundantly clear that such a position was not open.  There is a strong public interest inherent in sections 34 and 35, and quite rightly it should take a very forceful argument to dislodge the exemption upon application of the public interest.  Undoubtedly though, the closer one gets to the 100 year mark set out in FOISA, the more the public interest in maintaining the exemption reduces.  Of course The very nature of the public interest test is such that it will entirely depend upon the facts and circumstances of individual cases.

I would be very interested to hear others thoughts on the judgment.  If you have any, please feel free to stick them in the comments section below.