One for the insomniacs – Upper Tribunal on EIRs and commercial confidentiality

In May 2012 I blogged about a case in the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights) (FTT).  It was an appeal by  Swansea Friends of the Earth against a decision of the Information Commissioner (IC) not to require the Environment Agency to disclose  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.

I was critical of the FTT’s approach to breach of confidence, as it applies to the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR). However, with the handing down of judgment by the Upper Tribunal, following an appeal by Natural Resources Wales, as successor to the Environment Agency, I see I was wrong on two points (one minor, one major), right on another, and my key point was left undecided. Exciting stuff folks – hold on to your hats!

My minor error was to repeat the FTT’s description of Megarry J’s classic tri-partite breach of confidence test in Coco v A N Clark (Engineers) Ltd [1969] RPC 44 as being a common law doctrine. As the Upper Tribunal points out

That, to be correct, is a decision about the equitable doctrine of confidential communication (not the common law) that may arise otherwise than by contract between the parties

Silly me. Silly FTT.

Natural Resources Wales argued before the Upper Tribunal that

there was a statutory obligation in place [militating against disclosure], so that the Agency did not have to rely on equitable grounds

And this goes to my major error, which was to overlook, in striving to make a point of general application about the modern development of the law of confidence, that in this specific case the IC’s original Decision Notice had found that information in question was confidential for the purposes of Regulation 12(5)(e) of the EIR firstly because the provisions of the Pollution Prevention and Control (England and Wales) Regulations 2000 (PPCR) (which were the regulations – since revoked and remade – which applied to the licence in question) effectively made it so, and only secondly because the information and the circumstances by which it came into the Environment Agency’s control met the Coco v Clark tests.

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 Upper Tribunal held that the FTT had erred in law, saying (paragraphs 51-52), as had the IC in the first instance, that relevant provisions of the PPCR meant that confidentiality was “provided by law to protect a legitimate economic interest”:

disclosure of the relevant information would adversely affect confidentiality “where such confidentiality is provided by law to protect a legitimate economic interest”… Here that must be regarded as a reference across to regulation 31 of the 2000 Regulations. Regulation 31(1)(a) makes an express reference to commercial confidentiality. The factual background to these appeals makes it plain that the figures in question here were figures produced within the 2000 Regulations framework and were subject to the necessary application and ruling to protect confidentiality of them

So it was not necessary to consider whether the information was also covered by the equitable doctrine of confidence.

The point on which I was right (in my original post) was regarding whether, or the extent to which, regulation 12(5)(e) of the EIR was directly comparable to the similar section 41 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). I said

This extension of the FOIA confidentiality principles into the EIR is controversial…

and the Upper Tribunal judge says

the tests in section 41 and regulation 12 are separate and cannot be read together to include in one something in the other simply because they deal with similar issues

which is pretty unequivocal (and see also Chichester District Council v IC and Friel (GIA 1253 2011), cited as authority for the lack of analogy between the two).

Finally, another point I hadn’t addressed (although Phil Bradshaw did, in the comments to my original post) concerns the failure by the FTT to distinguish between the location of information in documents, with the information itself. The FTT had said

the information came into existence through a process of negotiation between the parties

but this surely was not the case – rather, documents, containing information, came into existence through a process of negotiation. But the information itself was caught by regulation 12(5)(e)

the focus is on this information, not on any particular document or form in which those figures are recorded or any process by which they emerged. I accordingly agree with the challengers that in so far as the First-tier Tribunal concerned itself with the specific location of those figures in specific documents produced as part of the licensing process rather than the information itself it was wrong in law

So there you have it. A rip-roaring convoluted run-through of why an obscure old blog post by me was slightly wrong and slightly right. I aim to please.

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Filed under Confidentiality, Environmental Information Regulations, Freedom of Information, Information Commissioner, Information Tribunal, Upper Tribunal

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