The Court of Appeal has ordered disclosure of private correspondence between Prince Charles and the government. The judgment is potentially a triumph for transparency, but I have my doubts whether it reflects Parliament’s intentions when passing the FOI Act. And there will be a further appeal…
In September 2012 the Administrative Appeals Chamber of the Upper Tribunal (UT) handed down a judgment which struck me then, as it does now, as a remarkable work of research and scholarship. It was ruling on requests by the Guardian journalist Rob Evans – made as far back as April 2005 – under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR) for disclosure of information in private letters sent by the Prince of Wales to government ministers on matters of official policy. The UT’s judgment ran to 65 pages with three annexes, went into detailed analysis of constitutional conventions regarding the heir to the throne, and its decision was that the correspondence should be disclosed (overturning the prior decisions of the Information Commissioner (IC)). Subsequently, the Attorney General issued a certificate under section 53 FOIA – a “ministerial veto” – whose effect was to disapply the UT’s decision. The Attorney General’s certificate, in rather wider-spaced text, ran to ten pages.
Section 53 requires only that the accountable person (a minister)
gives the [Information] Commissioner a certificate signed by him stating that he has on reasonable grounds formed the opinion [that there had not been a failure to comply with the FOIA]
It is, as I’ve argued before , a bludgeon of an executive weapon, but it is, as are all acts of public authorities, potentially amenable to judicial review. So it was that, despite any statutory right of appeal, the Guardian made such an application. However, in July 2013, the High Court effectively decided that, although the ministerial power to override a superior court of record (let alone the statutory decision-maker, in the form of the IC) appeared to be a “constitutional aberration”, the proposition that “the accountable person is not entitled simply to prefer his own view to that of the tribunal” must be rejected. As Davis LJ said (para 111)
why not? It is inherent in the whole operation of s.53 that the accountable person will have formed his own opinion which departs from the previous decision (be it of Information Commissioner, tribunal or court) and may certify without recourse to an appeal. As it seems to me, therefore, disagreement with the prior decision (be it of Information Commissioner, tribunal or court) is precisely what s.53 contemplates, without any explicit or implicit requirement for the existence of fresh evidence or of irrationality etc. in the original decision which the certificate is designed to override
However, Davis LJ refused to accept that the wording of section 53 (“…stating that he has on reasonable grounds formed the opinion…”) permitted of an interpretation that:
the accountable person can, as it were, self-certify as to the availability of reasonable grounds
In my view, the language chosen clearly is sufficient to connote that an objective test is to be applied
But how to conduct that objective test? For Davis LJ, it must be that the reasonable grounds are “cogent”:
if an accountable person is to interfere, by way of exercise of the power of executive override, with the decision of an independent judicial body then that accountable person must be prepared and able to justify doing so. I am reluctant to talk in terms of burden of proof. But in terms of burden of argument the burden is in practice on the accountable person to show that the grounds for certifying are reasonable
Lord Dyson in the Court of Appeal has taken issue with this, saying (para 38) that
I do not consider that it is reasonable for an accountable person to issue a section 53(2) certificate merely because he disagrees with the decision of the tribunal. Something more is required […]
a material change of circumstances since the tribunal decision or that the decision of the tribunal was demonstrably flawed in fact or in law
As Dr Mark Elliot argues Lord Dyson here “adopted a significantly more exacting conception of reasonableness” than had the High Court and I would commend Dr Elliot’s piece to you as an expert analysis I am not competent to give.
However – and it pains me to say it, because I really don’t like section 53 – wasn’t it precisely Parliament’s intention that the accountable person did “merely” have to state that he had formed – on reasonable grounds – a different opinion to the preceding tribunal? If he cannot arrive at a different opinion, in the absence of “something else”, isn’t section 53 fundamentally weakened, even sidestepped? Indeed, Lord Dyson in my view arrives at this point, when he says
On the approach of the Divisional Court to section 53(2), the accountable person can override the decision of an independent and impartial tribunal which (i) is reasonable, (ii) is the product of a detailed examination (fairly conducted) of the issues after an adversarial hearing at which all parties have been represented and (iii) is not challenged on appeal. All that is required is that the accountable person gives sensible and rational reasons for disagreeing with the tribunal’s conclusion. If section 53(2) has that effect, it is a remarkable provision not only because of its constitutional significance (the point emphasised by the Divisional Court), but also because it seriously undermines the efficacy of the rights of appeal accorded by sections 57 and 58 of the FOIA
No doubt we shall see this explored more – the Attorney General is reported to have sought, and been given, leave to appeal to the Supreme Court.