Any judicial system needs to have rules to ensure effective and efficient case management: failure to do so risks delays, backlogs and, ultimately, breaches of natural justice and Article 6 Convention rights. Thus, we have the civil, the criminal, and the family procedure rules, and, within the tribunal system, the 2008 Upper Tribunal Rules, and a whole host of First-tier Tribunal Rules (the ones relating to Information Rights cases are the General Regulatory Chamber Rules 2009 (TPR)). In addition, there are Practice Notes (such as one for “Closed Material in Information Rights Cases”) and a range of forms and guidance. There are even specific “Guidance notes for individuals representing themselves in freedom of information appeals in the general regulatory chamber of the first-tier tribunal” (which I shall call the “LiP Guidance” (with LiP meaning Litigant in Person)). (Interestingly, the only copy of this I can find online is hosted on a third party site.)
For such litigants in person, these sources of rules and guidance (and the navigating of them) are essential but complicated. A neat illustration of this point comes in a recent judgment of the Upper Tribunal on a Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) case.
In the First-tier Tribunal (FTT) a Mr Matthews had sought to appeal the Information Commissioner’s (IC) decision notice that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (DBIS) didn’t hold the majority of information sought about the tendering process for the delivery of marketing workshops from Business Link West Midlands, and that what it did hold was exempt from disclosure under section 40(2) of FOIA. Mr Matthews, referring to the LiP Guidance (at paragraph 16) asked for, and expected, an oral hearing.
However, in responding to the notice of appeal, the IC applied successfully, under rule 8(2)(a) of the TPR to “strike out” one ground of appeal, and under rule 8(3)(c) to “strike out” the remainder.
Lawyers, and those who deal in this subject regularly, recognise that to “strike out” all grounds of appeal means the appeal is no more. But others might sympathise with Mr Matthews, who did not have any help on this matter from the LiP Guidance, and who, when asked by the Upper Tribunal judge, explained that what he had thought it meant was
that the way in which he had written his grounds out may be stuck through or altered, or sent back to him to change, but that the appeal itself would continue
So, we have Mr Matthews, still expecting an appeal with a hearing, but getting neither.
But was he entitled to a hearing, not of his substantive appeal, but to determine whether his appeal should be struck out? This was what was, in the main, at issue in the Upper Tribunal.
Rule 32(3) of the TPR says that the general rule that the FTT must hold a hearing before disposing of an appeal need not apply when deciding whether to strike out a party’s case. It does not preclude a hearing, though, but, rather, leaves it to the FTT’s discretion. In this instance the Upper Tribunal judge decided that the FTT erred in law in not exercising its discretion to hold a hearing and, alternatively or additionally, for failing to give any reasons for not holding a hearing.
Accordingly, the case is remitted to the FTT for it to hold an oral hearing of the strike-out application.
This might seem a very convoluted and unimportant judgment, but it shows the Upper Tribunal is alive to the difficulties faced by lay self-represented litigants in what should be more of an inquisitorial, rather than adversial, system. And it shows, as have other cases before it (see for instance Dransfield v IC & Devon Council, and IICUS v IC & BIS & Ray) that the Upper Tribunal is not unwilling to remit cases to the FTT on grounds of procedural unfairness.