Article 6(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights provides inter alia that “everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing”. An interesting case in the Upper Tribunal shows how failure to comply with tribunal rules (in this case The Tribunal Procedure (First-tier Tribunal) (Social Entitlement Chamber) Rules 2008 (“the TPR”) ) can render tribunal proceedings unfair and – arguably – in breach of Article 6(1). And although the case was not dealing substantively with an “information rights” matter, data protection played a small part.
This was a successful appeal, in which the Upper Tribunal held there had been a material error of law by the FTT. Upper Tribunal Judge Wright’s basis for permitting the appeal had been
that it seems arguable from the papers before me that the appeal was decided by the First-tier Tribunal without [the appellant] having had sight of the HMRC’s appeal response or the documents it relied on
and this was accepted by the respondent, HMRC.
It appears that HMRC had declined to comply with Rule 24(5) of the Rules (that it must provide a copy of the response and any accompanying documents to each other party at the same time as it provides the response to the Tribunal) because of “data security issues”…”because it was concerned that [the appellant] was not living at the address he was relying on”. It had conveyed its intention not to comply with Rule 24(5) in a letter to the FTT, but had not referred to any other Rule which permitted the action, and, although the letter sought directions from a judge there was no evidence
either on the Upper Tribunal file or the First-tier Tribunal file – to indicate either (a) that this letter was ever put before a Judge of the First tier-Tribunal, or (b) that directions were issued either requiring disclosure or precluding it, or (c) that the appeal response and evidence was ever sent to [the appellant] before the appeal was decided on 23.04.12
Accordingly, HMRC erred in law in not providing the appeal response and evidence, and the FTT, in not addressing this, made a material error of law in coming to its decision.
The Upper Tribunal judge also noted that HMRC’s concerns about data security could well have been met by section 35 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (which provides an exemption from the bars elsewhere in the DPA against disclosure of personal data if the “disclosure is required by or under any enactment, by any rule of law or by order of the court”). As the judge observed, “those words would seem to encompass rule 24 of the TPR”.
Lawyers and practitioners (and indeed litigants) should be aware that data protection concerns regarding disclosure of evidence, or serving of required papers, should not get in the way of tribunals’ overrriding objectives to deal with cases fairly and justly, because if they do, a potential breach of parties’ Article 6 rights may occur. They should also make sure (as should, I suspect, tribunal clerks) that letters seeking directions are put before a judge.