Has the Information Tribunal once again followed too slavishly the principles of a 44-year-old expression of the doctrine of common law confidentiality?
In 2008 the then Information Tribunal held that the Home Office had not been entitled to rely on exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) when dealing with a request from the British Union of Anti-Vivisectionists (BUAV). Specifically, the Tribunal held that some of the information in question did not attract the protection of the common law of confidence (which, for complex reasons was invoked through the interplay of section 24 of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, and section 44 of FOIA, rather than section 41 FOIA, which deals in explicit terms with confidential information). The Tribunal relied heavily in its analysis of the law of confidence on the principles in the landmark case of Coco v AN Clark (Engineers) Ltd (1968) FSR 415 Ch D. On appeal to the High Court, Mr Justice Eady was critical of this reliance, pointing out that there had been significant developments in the law since Coco v Clark:
The Tribunal rather proceeded on the assumption that “the law of confidence” was to be found only in the principles explained by Sir Robert Megarry in Coco v Clark. It assumed that this authority provided an exclusive definition such that, whenever the phrase “in confidence” was to be found in a statute, the legislature must be taken to have had those principles in mind. With respect, however, this does not seem to me to be necessarily the case. Much will depend on context.
It is clear, for example, that the law of confidence is not confined to the principles governing the circumstances in which an equitable duty of confidence will arise; nor to the specialist field of commercial secrets. An obligation of confidence can arise by reason of an agreement, express or implied, and presumably also by the imposition of a statutory duty. (Secretary of State for the Home Office v BUAV & Anor  EWHC 892 (QB))
It is thus important to bear in mind, for the present case, the broad principle, stated by Buxton LJ in McKennitt at , that ” … in order to find the rules of the English law of breach of confidence we now have to look in the jurisprudence of articles 8 and 10″. The Tribunal did not address these developments at all and thus proceeded on an incomplete understanding of the present law.
It is somewhat surprising, therefore, to read the recent judgment of a differently consituted First-Tier Tribunal (Information Rights), considering the extent to which environmental information was exempt from disclosure under regulation 12(5)(e) of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR). Regulation 12(5)(e) provides that
a public authority may refuse to disclose information to the extent that its disclosure would adversely affect…the confidentiality of commercial or industrial information where such confidentiality is provided by law to protect a legitimate economic interest
The case – Jones (on behalf of Swansea Friends of the Earth) v IC & Environment Agency – involved a request for information relating to financial guarantee arrangements put in place a landfill site operator, as a condition for obtaining a permit to operate a waste landfill site near Swansea. It was common ground that the request for enviromental information, and that it was commercial in nature, so the main question which fell to be decided by the Tribunal was whether the information was
subject to a duty of confidence provided by law because the information was created and provided in circumstances giving rise to an obligation of confidence
At paragraph 35 of its judgment, the Tribunal says
The well-established test in Coco v Clark is that, apart from contract, for a common law breach of confidence claim to succeed, three elements must be
(a) the information itself must “have the necessary quality of confidence about it;
(b) the information must have been imparted in circumstances importing an obligation of confidence; and
(c) there must be an unauthorised use of that information, to the detriment of the party communicating it.
With respect, the Tribunal here appears to have had no regard to Eady J’s dicta, and the many recent authorities he cited, in Home Office v BUAV.
Accordingly, the Tribunal went on hold (para 36) that it
[did] not see that it can be said that the [financial guarantee arrangement] information was imparted in circumstances importing an obligation of confidence…[because] the information came into existence through a process of negotiation between the parties
The Tribunal drew support for this from the findings of a (differently-constituted) tribunal in a case concerning the analagous (but differently-worded) section 41 exemption in FOIA concerning confidential information:
We recognise that section 41 refers more explicitly to information being “obtained” by the public authority from any other person. That is not the language of regulation 12(5)(e). However, we consider that the same element is imported by the incorporation of the common law test of breach of confidence into regulation 12(5)(e) of the EIR. In short, we find that the second element of the test in Coco v Clark has not been met and the information is not subject to a duty of confidence provided by law. (para 38)
This extension of the FOIA confidentiality principles into the EIR is controversial in itself. It becomes even more so when compared with a previous Tribunal decision on regulation 12(5)(e). In South Gloucestershire CC v IC & Bovis Homes (EA/2009/32) the more restrictive language of section 41 FOIA was explicitly contrasted with that of regulation 12(5)(e). The Tribunal held there that the Council’s own information could attract the protection of the law of confidence, without the necessity of its having been provided by a third party. See this helpful article by Practical Law Company for further on this, and for reference to the rather regrettable fact that South Gloucestershire v IC & Bovis Homes was not mentioned by the Tribunal in the instant case.
The slavish adherence to the Coco v Clark principles also risks – as Eady J alluded to when citing Buxton LJ – overlooking the significance of the jurisprudence of the European Convention on Human Rights as it applies to confidential information. In Veolia ES Nottinghamshire Ltd v Nottinghamshire County Council & Ors  EWCA Civ 1214 the Court of Appeal considered, in a case under the Audit Commission Act 1998 (ACA), whether commercially confidential information could constitute a “possession” protected by article 1 of the First Protocol of the Convention, and, potentially, by extension, Article 8. Lord Justice Rix said
I can see no reason, in the light of the Strasbourg jurisprudence which does exist, why valuable commercial confidential information, such as the evidence in this case demonstrates is in question here, particularly with respect to the second disputed documents, cannot fall within the concept of “possessions”
I am not entirely convinced that English common law has always regarded the preservation of confidential information as a fundamental human right, although I accept that it has been recognised and accepted by our common law. Nevertheless, in the light of at least article 1 of the first protocol, it can now be seen that it is a species of “possessions”, with which the state cannot interfere without justification
Disclosure of information under a regime such as the EIR (or FOIA) is different to the potential unfettered disclosure proposed under the ACA, and the public interest provisions might provide the “justification” for state interference discussed by Rix LJ. Nonetheless, it seems surprising to say the least that Jones v IC & Environment Agency proceeded without reference to any of the more recent authorities of confidentiality.
It is notable that Jones v IC & Environment Agency was determined on the papers, without the benefit of oral argument. It would greatly assist both public authorities, and the commercial organisations with whom they interact, if these points were fully argued, and a reasonably definitive position laid down, by an appellate court.