Pointed observations in a judgment which are not directly related to the matters pleaded are usually worth noting. Those in a recent case involving the PACE trial and Queen Mary, University of London, are essential reading for academics and support staff who deal with FOI
In a ruling handed down this week the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights) (“FTT”) has upheld the Information Commissioner’s (IC) decision that Queen Mary, University of London, was entitled to rely on the exemption at section 36(2)(b)(1) and (2) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 in refusing to disclose minutes of the Trial Steering Committee and Trial Management Groups of the Pace Trial. The trial had been set up to compare and test the effectiveness of four of the main treatments currently available for people suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), but it attracted considerable criticism from some quarters. In the words of the FTT
There has been a storm of comments about this study. There had been deeply wounding personal criticisms of individuals concerned and over the years individuals in this field of research and treatment have withdrawn from research in the face of hostile irrational criticism and threats.
The FTT found that the exemption was engaged:
it is pellucidly clear that the progress and conduct of research in this area would be hampered by the publication of minutes of meetings such as sought by this request because individuals would be less willing to engage in research, participate in steering committees, provide guidance, debate issues about the conduct of research as fully and frankly as they otherwise would; as fully and frankly as would most benefit the research and the patients it is intended to help
and the public interest favoured maintaining the exemption:
the appellant’s arguments in favour of disclosure of the minutes when so much has been made available publicly in relation to this research and been subjected to such high levels of independent scrutiny do not outweigh the considerable weight to be given to the public interest in maintaining the safe space for academic research
But the FTT then made wide-ranging and significant observations about the concept of academic freedom and its relation to FOI. The decision cites Article 13 of The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Community:
Freedom of the arts and sciences The arts and scientific research shall be free of constraint. Academic freedom shall be respected.
and section 202 of the Education Reform Act 1988 which places an obligation on the University Commissioners to
ensure that academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received opinion, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have their institutions
and the FTT stresses the “profound importance” of academic freedom, noting that the IC has an obligation, as an emanation of the state, to give effect to Article 13. The judgment notes that the purpose of universities is to disseminate and generate knowledge and that disclosure of information is their primary purpose (“the activity which imbues the University with its moral significance”). In rather remarkable terms, the seeking of and disclosure of information (from academic institutions) under FOIA is unfavourably compared to this academic dissemination:
A parallel process of dissemination through FOIA is unlikely to be as effective or robust as the process of lectures, seminars, conferences and publications which are the lifeblood of the University. They are likely to be a diversion from the effective evaluation, publication and scrutiny of research through the academic processes. All too often such requests are likely to be motivated by a desire not to have information but a desire to divert and improperly undermine the research and publication process – in football terminology – playing the man and not the ball
One might pause to question whether this unfairly overplays the likelihood of FOIA requests being detrimental to academia, and also overstates the amount of information which is disseminated to the general public through academic research. Part of the reason for FOIA is that it enables the public to access information that public authorities specifically choose not to proactively disclose. One sees similar arguments at play in the apparent prioritising of the “transparency agenda” over FOIA disclosure.
There follows, though, a sensible suggestion for what researchers might consider at the outset of projects. With a view to the obligation to publish and maintain a publication scheme, institutions are advised that
it might well be worth considering at the start of a major project such as this setting out a publication strategy identifying what materials will be produced in the course of the project, which materials will be published and when (this will enable s22 to be considered if FOIA requests are received for such material), and which are unlikely to be published under FOIA as exemptions may be engaged
and the IC is (again with a nod to his Article 13 obligations) prompted to issue guidance on this.
Finally, the judgment suggests that the University missed a trick with this specific request
properly viewed in its context, this request should have been seen as vexatious- it was not a true request for information-rather its function was largely polemical and as such in the light of recent Upper Tribunal judgements might have been more efficiently and effectively handled if treated as vexatious
The Tribunal Judge, Christopher Hughes, has a wealth of experience in the field of academic and medical research. These are crucial observations about the relationship between FOI and academia. We already have a new exemption on its way specifically for academic research (by way of clause 19 of the Intellectual Property Bill) but this decision appears to reinforce the protection that academic research and associated information will be given from FOIA disclosure.
The BMJ has an article on this judgment (behind the paywall, but letters in response are here (thanks to Zuton who has commented below for drawing this to my attention).