Category Archives: Information Tribunal

ICO FOI Decision Notices – insufficient attention to detail?

Anyone used to reading Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) decision notices from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) will be familiar with this sort of wording:

The Commissioner has concluded that the public interest favours maintaining the exemption contained at section x(y) of FOIA. In light of this decision, the Commissioner has not gone on to consider the public authority’s reliance on section z(a) of FOIA.

In fact, a search on the ICO website for the words “has not gone on” throws up countless examples.

What lies behind this approach is this: a public authority, in refusing to disclose recorded information, is entitled to rely on more than one of the FOIA exemptions, because information might be exempt under more than one. An obvious example would be where information exempted from disclosure for the purposes of safeguarding national security (section 24 FOIA) would also likely to be exempt under section 31 (law enforcement).

One assumes that the ICO does this for pragmatic reasons – if information is exempt it’s exempt, and application of a further exemption in some ways adds nothing. Indeed, the ICO guidance for public authorities advises

you [do not]  have to identify all the exemptions that may apply to the same information, if you are content that one applies

Now, this is correct as a matter of law (section 78 of FOIA makes clear that, as a general principle, reliance by public authorities upon the Act’s exemptions is discretionary), and the ICO’s approach when making decisions is understandable, but it is also problematic, and a recent case heard by the Information Tribunal illustrates why.

In Morland v IC & Cabinet Office (EA/2016/0078) the Tribunal was asked to determine an appeal from Morland, after the Cabinet Office had refused to disclose to him minutes of the Honours and Decorations Committee, and after the ICO had upheld the refusal. As the Tribunal noted

The Cabinet Office refused the Appellant’s information request in reliance upon s. 37 (1) (b) and s. 35 (1) (a) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (“FOIA”) [and the ICO] Decision Notice found (at paragraph 13) that the exemption under s. 37 (1) (b) was 5 engaged by the request and (at paragraph 25) that the public interest favoured maintaining the exemption “by a narrow margin”.  The Decision Notice expressly did not consider the Cabinet Office’s reliance on s. 35 (1) (b). [emphasis added]

The problem arose because the Tribunal found that, pace the ICO’s decision, the exemption at section 37(1)(b) was not engaged (because that section creates an exemption to disclosure if the information relates to the conferring by the crown of an honour or dignity, and the information request related to whether an entirely new honour should be created). But what of the exemption at s35(1)(b)? Well, although it would not always be the case in similar circumstances, here the Tribunal and the parties were in a bind, because, as the Tribunal said

We are left with a situation where, as the Decision Notice did not reach a conclusion on that issue, none of the parties appear to have regarded s. 35 (1) (a) as being seriously in play in this appeal, with the effect that we have received limited argument on that issue

There is no power to remit a decision to the ICO (see IC v Bell [2014] UKUT 0106 (AAC) (considered in a Panopticonblog post here), so the Tribunal had to make findings in relation to s35, despite a “concern whether it is right to do so”. On the expressly limited evidence before it it found that the exemption was not engaged at the time of the request, and, accordingly, upheld Morland’s appeal, saying that it

[regarded] the failure of the Decision Notice to determine a key issue between the parties as rather unsatisfactory

Whether this will lead the ICO to revisit its apparent policy of, at least at times, focusing on only one of multiple claimed exemptions remains to be seen. It’s not often that I have sympathy with the Cabinet Office when it comes to matters of FOIA, but there is a modicum here.

Nonetheless, I think what this case does suggest is that a public authority should, when faced with an appeal of an ICO Decision Notice upholding a FOIA refusal, give strong consideration to whether it needs to be joined to the appeal (as, admittedly, the Cabinet Office was here) and to make sure that its response to the appeal (under part 27 of the Tribunal Rules) fully deals with all applicable exemptions, notwithstanding the contents of the Decision Notice. In this way, the Tribunal can, where necessary, take as fully-apprised a decision as possible on all of those exemptions.

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

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ICO discloses names of Operation Motorman journalists

In August this year the Upper Tribunal dismissed an appeal by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) of a prior ruling that he must disclose the names of certain journalists who appeared on a list 305 names seized by the ICO during a raid in 2003 on the home of private investigator Steve Whittamore. The raid was part of “Operation Motorman”, an investigation which forms part of the background to the various civil and criminal proceedings generated by the phone-hacking scandals, and to the establishment of the Leveson Inquiry.

The names which have been ordered to be disclosed have now been provided by the ICO to the requester, the clearly indefatigable Chris Colenso-Dunne. Chris has kindly given the list to me, and I make it available in the attachment below. One name stands out in particular: Rebekah Wade (as she then was), now Brooks, who has always denied knowledge of the phone-hacking which took place while she was editor of the now defunct News of the World (and who was, of course, acquitted in 2014 of conspiring to hack phones when editor of that paper and of making corrupt payments to public officials when editor of The Sun, as well as of all other charges).

It is important to be aware, as the Upper Tribunal said, that presence on the list means nothing more than that the journalists in question

had commissioned Mr Whittamore to obtain information… The information did not carry with it any assertion as to the actual or alleged commission of any crime by those journalists [para 38]

No doubt the list will generate further comment, though.

ICO Motorman List

[this post was edited to remove a paragraph where I’d mistakenly taken the list to mean that Wade was working for “Femail” at the time]

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.


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Filed under Data Protection, Freedom of Information, Information Commissioner, Information Tribunal, journalism, Upper Tribunal

Easy as 1-2-3…?

Has the ICO got its FOI sums wrong?

I wrote recently about a decision of the Information Tribunal where the Tribunal held that the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) had wrongly calculated the time for compliance with a request made under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) and consequently had said that the public authority in question had contravened its obligations under section 10(1) of FOIA, when in fact it had complied on time. 

One might have thought the ICO would have made sure that it didn’t make this counting mistake again, particularly in cases where an error can make the difference between requests being either compliant or not compliant with FOIA. I was rather surprised, therefore, to notice  a recently published decision notice by the ICO in which (if my calculations are correct) they have again wrongly calculated the time for compliance and consequently issued a decision against a public authority when in fact the public authority had complied with its obligations under section 10(1). As I have noted before, the 20 working day time for compliance with a FOIA request does not include bank holidays even where the bank holiday in question applies only in one part of the UK. So, for instance, a bank holiday in Scotland (say, St Andrew’s Day), but not in the rest of the UK, is still classed as a non-working day for the purposes of FOIA. In this instance one of the requests for information was made on March 16, 2014 and responded to on April 14 2014. The ICO said this meant that the public authority in question – the Student Loans Company – had taken 21 working days to respond. However this seems to overlook the fact that March 17 is a bank holiday in Northern Ireland, where it marks St Patrick’s Day. Accordingly it should not have been counted as a working day by the ICO for the purposes of FOIA. 

By my calculations the public authority responded on the 20th working day, they complied with their obligations under FOIA, and the ICO has issued a defective decision notice. I wonder if an appeal has been lodged.

There are a surprising number of bank holidays throughout the year, when one takes into account those in all parts of the UK, and it is worth bearing in mind that if one of those days falls within any of the putative 20 working days for compliance with a FOIA request then it will push the time for compliance back that one extra day. I reckon (and as nerdy as I am I’m not so nerdy as to have (yet) worked it out) that there’s probably something like a 50% chance that a FOIA request will actually contain a day that is a bank holiday, and maybe one that is not one that applies uniformly throughout the UK. All FOIA requesters, practitioners and, indeed, regulators, should bear this in mind.

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

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FOI, data protection and rogue landlords 

On 23rd July the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH), in conjunction with the Guardian, published a database of landlords who have been convicted of offences under the Housing Act 2004. This showed, for example, that one landlord has been prosecuted seven times for issues relating to disrepair and poor state of properties rented out. It also showed apparent regional discrepancies regarding prosecutions, with some councils carrying out only one prosecution since 2006.

This public interest investigative journalism was, however not achieved without a fight: in September last year the information Commissioners office (ICO) issued a decision notice finding that the journalists request for this information had been correctly refused by the Ministry of Justice on the grounds that the information was sensitive personal data and disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) would contravene the MoJ’s obligations under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA). Section 40(2) of FOIA provides that information is exempt from disclosure under FOIA if disclosure would contravene any of the data protection principles in Schedule One of the DPA (it also provides that it would be exempt if disclosure would contravene section 10 of the DPA, but this is rarely invoked). The key data protection principle is the first, which says that personal data must be processed fairly and lawfully, and in particular that the processing must meet one of the conditions in Schedule Two, and also – for sensitive personal data – one of the conditions in Schedule Three.

The ICO, in its decision notice, after correctly determining that information about identifiable individuals (as opposed to companies) within the scope of the request was sensitive personal data (because it was about offences committed by those individuals) did not accept the requester’s submission that a Schedule Three condition existed which permitted disclosure. The only ones which could potentially apply – condition 1 (explicit consent) or condition 5 (information already made public by the individual) – were not engaged.

However, the ICO did not at the time consider the secondary legislation made under condition 10: the Data Protection (Processing of Sensitive Personal Data) Order 2000 provides further bases for processing of sensitive personal data, and, as the the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights) (FTT) accepted upon appeal by the applicant, part 3 of the Schedule to that Order permits processing where the processing is “in the substantial public interest”, is in connection with “the commission by any person of any unlawful act” and is for journalistic purposes and is done with a “view to the publication of those data by any person and the data controller reasonably believes that such publication would be in the public interest”. In fairness to the ICO, this further condition was identified by them in their response to the appeal.

In this case, the information was clearly sought with a view to the future publication in the CIEH’s Magazine, “Environmental Health News” and the requester was the digital editor of the latter. This, the FTT decided, taken with the (objective) substantial public interest in the publication of the information, was sufficient to make disclosure under FOIA fair and lawful. In a passage (paras 28-30) worth quoting in full the FTT said

Unfit housing is a matter of major public concern and has a significant impact on the health of tenants.  The Housing Act is a key mechanism for local authorities to improve housing standards and protect the health of vulnerable tenants.  One mechanism for doing this is by means of prosecution, another is licensing schemes for landlords.  Local authorities place vulnerable families in accommodation outside their areas tenants seek accommodation, The publication of information about convictions under the Housing Act would be of considerable value to local authorities in discharge of their functions and assist prospective tenants and those assisting them in avoiding landlords with a history of breaches of the Housing Act.

The sanctions under the Housing Act are comparatively small and the  opprobrium of a conviction may well not rank with other forms of criminal misbehaviour, however the potential for harm to others from such activity is very great, the potential for financial benefit from the misbehaviour is also substantial.  Breaches of the Housing Act are economically motivated and what is proposed is a method of advancing the policy objective of the Housing Act by increasing the availability of relevant information to key actors in the rented housing market – the local authorities as regulator and purchaser and the tenants themselves.  Any impact on the data subjects will overwhelmingly be on their commercial reputations rather than more personal matters.

The Tribunal is therefore satisfied that not only is the disclosure of this information in the substantial public interest, but also any reasonably informed data controller with  knowledge of the social needs and the impact of such disclosure would so conclude.

It is relatively rare that sensitive personal data will be disclosed, or ordered to be disclosed, under FOIA, but it is well worth remembering the 2000 Order, particularly when it comes to publication or proposed publication of such data under public interest journalism.

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with..

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Porsches, farts and environmental information

A quick post on what I think is a rather remarkable Information Tribunal ruling.

The First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights) (“FTT”) has recently handed down a judgment on a case relating to a request for information sent to the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) about a safety evaluation of an apparent throttle malfunction in the Porsche Cayman. The request was refused by DVSA on the grounds that section 44 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) provided an absolute exemption to disclosure, by way of existing restrictions on disclosure of this kind of information within the Enterprise Act 2002. Upon appeal, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) upheld this refusal (pointing out that in fact the correct public authority was not the DVSA, but rather the Department of Transport, of which DVSA is an executive agency).

However, when the request exercised his right of appeal to the FTT, he introduced an argument that in fact the proper regime under which his request should have been considered was the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR) rather than FOIA, on the grounds that his request concerned an activity that directly affected the environment, namely an activity to regulate vehicle noise emissions. The ICO resisted this, on the basis that

the disputed information concerned a safety test of a certain vehicle “which is not an activity which affects, or is likely to affect, the elements and factors described in Regulation 2(1)(a) or (b) EIR”

This in itself was an interesting argument, touching on issues regarding the Glawischnig remoteness test. This refers to the judgment of the Court of Justice of the European Union in the 2003 case C-316/01 (Eva Glawischnig and Bundesminister für soziale Sicherheit und Generationen) which, observing that Article 2(a) of Directive 90/313 (to which the EIR give UK domestic effect)

classifies information relating to the environment within the meaning of that directive in three categories: information on the state of water, air, soil, fauna, flora, land and natural sites (‘the first category’), information on activities or measures affecting or likely to affect those environmental factors (‘the second category’), and information on activities or measures designed to protect those factors (‘the third category’)

said that

Directive 90/313 is not intended…to give a general and unlimited right of access to all information held by public authorities which has a connection, however minimal, with one of the environmental factors mentioned in Article 2(a). To be covered by the right of access it establishes, such information must fall within one or more of the three categories set out in that provision. [Emphasis added]

However, the FTT in the instant case decided, contrary to the positions of all the parties that “the safety test in this case is not an activity, which can be said to affect the elements of the environment” (the appellant was arguing essentially that “his request concerned an activity that directly affected the environment, namely an activity to regulate vehicle noise emissions”), the EIR were engaged merely because the safety test first required a car to be started, which by extension meant that started engine would produce emissions:

in order to test the issue complained of (i.e. the vehicle throttle response under specific conditions) the vehicle must be driven, or at the very least the engine must be running.
Consequently, by conducting the safety test:
– the DVSA caused emissions by driving the vehicle (r.2(1)(b));
– at the very least those emissions affected the air (r.2(1)(a));
– they did so through a measure (a safety test) which was likely to affect the elements (air) (r.2(1)(c));

But following this argument, the EIR would tend give the public, pace the ruling of the CJEU in Glawischnig, “a general and unlimited right of access to all information held by public authorities which has a connection, however minimal, with [the environment]”? Information, say, held by the DVLA on the number of people who passed their driving test first time would be environmental because by running the driving test the DVLA caused emissions by requiring the tester to drive the car, at the very least those emissions affected the air and they did so through a measure (a driving test) which was likely to affect the elements (air). Or consider DEFRA conducting TB tests on cattle – in order to conduct the test the inspector must travel to a farm, and by doing so DEFRA cause emissions by causing a vehicle to be driven (or a train ride to be taken etc). At the very least those emissions affect the air, and they do so through a measure which is likely to affect the elements (air). Or this: in order to deliver mail, the Royal Mail must drive vehicles which cause emissions. At the very least those emissions affect the air, and they do so through a measure (their policy to use motor vehicles to deliver the mail) which is likely to affect the elements.

What next? Is information on the statement about the benefits of dietary fibre in the human diet environmental information, because by giving it the Department of Health caused more farts (emissions) which affect the air through a measure (the statement) which was likely to affect the (elements) air?

Maybe I’m being silly, but I don’t think I am. Rather, I think the FTT are, and I wonder if the judgment will be appealed.

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with..

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What a difference a day makes

Back in 2013 I blogged about a little-known (not unknown, as some commenters thought I was suggesting) oddity of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). This oddity is that a bank holiday falling in any part of the United Kingdom counts as a non-working-day for the purposes of FOIA. So, as January 2nd (or the nearest substitute day) is a bank holiday in Scotland, it is not a working day for the purposes of calculating the maximum timescale for compliance with a request made under FOIA, despite the fact that Scotland has its own Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.
What “bank holiday” means, according to section 10(6) of FOIA, is 

any day other than a Saturday, a Sunday, Christmas Day, Good Friday or a day which is a bank holiday under the Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971 in any part of the United Kingdom

And section 1 of the Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971 says 

the days specified in Schedule 1 to this Act shall be bank holidays in England and Wales, in Scotland and in Northern Ireland as indicated in the Schedule

The Schedule therefore provides a number of dates which are to be considered as bank holidays

All straightforward then? Not quite. Sections 1(2) and 1(3) of The Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971 also provide that the Queen can effectively remove or add a bank holiday “by proclamation”. What this means has recently been considered by the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights) (FTT), and it shows that even the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) can get this issue wrong sometimes. In the case, the ICO had said in its decision notice that the public authority, Monitor, had complied with its obligation to respond to a FOIA request within twenty working days, because the period involved included two bank holidays within the UK (on 14 July (Northern Ireland) and 4 August (Scotland)). However, when faced with an appeal to the FTT by the requester, the ICO faltered, and

recalculated the 20 day period and concluded that while July 14 was commemorated as the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne for the purpose of a public holiday in Northern Ireland it was not a bank holiday and accordingly the response from Monitor had been outside the 20 day period

Not so fast, said the FTT – remember section 1(3) of the Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971? Well, as the London Gazette records, on 14 June 2013 a proclamation was made by Her Majesty, providing that

…We consider it desirable that Monday the fourteenth day of July in the year 2014 should be a bank holiday in Northern Ireland

As the FTT said

The effect of this was to insert a bank holiday in July…accordingly [Monitor] responded within the time limit

All very arcane and abstruse, no doubt, but practitioners and requesters should note that the London Gazette records that on 18 July 2014 Her Majesty also proclaimed that 13th July 2015 would also be a bank holiday. So, for FOI requests whose normal twenty-working-day period includes the date of 13th July this year, everyone needs to bear in mind that, as hard as they may be working on that date, it is not to be counted as a FOIA working day. 

But everyone should also bear in mind that, if they find this tricky, even the ICO gets confused sometimes.

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with..

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Information Tribunal increases monetary penalty for company which made spam calls

The trouble with asking for a second opinion is it might be worse than the first one. Reactiv Media get an increased penalty after appealing to the tribunal.

In 2013 the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights) (“FTT”) heard the first appeal against a monetary penalty notice (“MPN”) imposed by the Information Commissioner’s Office (“ICO”). One of the first things in the appeal (brought by the Central London Community Healthcare NHS Trust) to be considered was the extent of the FTT’s jurisdiction when hearing such appeals – was it, as the ICO suggested, limited effectively only to allowing challenges on public law principles? (e.g. that the original decision was irrational, or failed to take relevant factors into account, or took irrelevant factors into account) or was it entitled to approach the hearing de novo, with the power to determine that the ICO’s discretion to serve an MPN had been exercised wrongly, on the facts? The FTT held that the latter approach (similar to the FTT’s jurisdiction in appeals brought under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA)) was the correct one, and, notably, it added the observation (at para. 39) that it was open to the FTT also to increase, as well as decrease, the amount of penalty imposed.

So, although an appeal to the FTT is generally a low-risk low-cost way of having the ICO’s decision reviewed, it does, in the context of MPNs served either under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) or the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 (PECR), potentially carry the risk of an increased penalty. And this is precisely what happened when a direct marketing company called Reactiv Media recently appealed an ICO MPN. Reactiv Media bad been held to have made a large number of unsolicited telephone calls to people who had subscribed to the Telephone Preference Service (“TPS”) – the calls were thus in contravention of Reactiv Media’s obligations under regulation 21 of PECR. The ICO determined that this constituted a serious contravention of those obligations, and as some at least of those calls were of a kind likely to cause (or indeed had caused) substantial damage or substantial distress, an MPN of £50,000 was served, under the mechanisms of section 55 of the DPA, as adopted by PECR.

Upon appeal to the FTT, Reactiv Media argued that some of the infringing calls had not been made by them, and disputed that any of them had caused substantial damage or distress. However, the FTT, noting the ICO’s submission that not only had the MPN been properly served, but also that it was lenient for a company with a turnover of £5.8m (a figure higher than the one the ICO had initially been given to understand), held that not only was the MPN “fully justified” – the company had “carried on its business in conscious disregard of its obligations” – but also that the amount should be increased by 50%, to £75,ooo. One presumes, also, that the company will not be given a further opportunity (as they were in the first instance) to take advantage of an early payment reduction.

One is tempted to assume that Reactiv Media thought that an appeal to the FTT was a cheap way of having a second opinion about the original MPN. I don’t know if this is true, but it if is, it is a lesson to other data controllers and marketers that, after an appeal, they might find themselves worse off.

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

 

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Filed under Data Protection, Information Commissioner, Information Tribunal, marketing, monetary penalty notice, nuisance calls, PECR

A bad day in court

If the Information Commissioner (IC) reasonably requires any information for the purpose of determining whether a data controller has complied or is complying with the data protection principles, section 43 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) empowers him to serve a notice on the data controller requiring it to furnish him with specified information relating to compliance with the principles. In short, he may serve an “information notice” on the data controller which requires the latter to assist him by providing relevant information. A data controller has a right of appeal, to the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights) (FTT), under section 48 DPA.

These provisions have recently come into play in an appeal by Medway Council of an IC Information Notice. That it did not go well for the former is probably rather understating it.

It appears that, back in 2012, Medway had a couple of incidents in which sensitive personal data, in the form of special educational needs documents, was sent in error to the wrong addresses. Medway clearly identified these as serious incidents, and reported themselves to the IC’s Office. By way of part-explanation for one of incidents (in which information was sent to an old address of one of the intended recipients), they pointed to “a flaw in the computer software used”.  Because of this explanation (which was “maintained in detail both in writing and orally”) the ICO formed a preliminary view that there had been a serious contravention of the seventh data protection principle (which is, let us remind ourselves “Appropriate technical and organisational measures shall be taken against unauthorised or unlawful processing of personal data and against accidental loss or destruction of, or damage to, personal data”). Moreover, the ICO served a Notice of Intent to serve a Monetary Penalty Notice (MPN). Upon receipt of this, it appears that Medway changed their explanation and said that the incident in question was a result of human error and that there was “no evidence of a ‘system glitch’”. It appears, however, that the ICO was concerned about discrepancies, and insufficient explanation of the change of position, and served a section 43 information notice requiring Medway to “provide a full explanation of how the security breach on 10 December 2012 occurred”. This was the notice appealed to the FTT.

However, during the FTT proceedings a third explanation for the incidents emerged, which seemed to combine elements of human error and system glitches. This was, observed the FTT, most unsatisfactory, saying, at paragraphs 28 and 29:

not only is this a third explanation of the breach but it is inconsistent with the other 2 explanations and is internally incoherent… The Tribunal is satisfied that there is still no reliable, clear or sufficiently detailed explanation of the incident to enable the Commissioner to be satisfied of:

a) what went wrong and why,
b) whether there was any prior knowledge of the potential for this problem,
c) what if any procedures were in place to avoid this type of problem at the relevant date,
d) why the Commissioner and the Tribunal have been provided with so many inaccurate and inconsistent accounts.

But even more ominously (paragraph 30)

The evidence provided to the Commissioner and the Tribunal has been inconsistent and unreliable and the Tribunal agrees with the Commissioner that it is reasonable that he should utilize a mechanism that enables him to call the Council to account if they recklessly [make] a statement which is false in a material respect  in light of the various contradictory and conflicting assertions made by the Council thus far

The words in italics are from section 47(2)(b) DPA, and relate to the potential criminal offence of recklessly making a material false statement in purported compliance with an information notice.

Finally, Medway’s conduct of the appeal itself came in for criticism: inappropriate, inconsistent and insufficient redactions were made in some materials submitted, and some evidence was sent in with no explanation of source, date or significance.

It is rare that information notices are required – most data controllers will comply willingly with an ICO investigation. It is even more rare that one is appealed, and maybe Medway’s recent experience shows why it’s not necessarily a good idea to do so. Medway may rather regret their public-spirited willingness to own up to the ICO in the first place.

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

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Filed under Breach Notification, Data Protection, enforcement, Information Commissioner, information notice, Information Tribunal, monetary penalty notice

Chris Graham and the cost of FOI tribunals

When Information Commissioner (IC) Christopher Graham speaks, people listen. And so they should: he is the statutory regulator of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) whose role is “to uphold information rights in the public interest”. A speech by Graham is likely be examined carefully, to see if it gives indications of future developments, and this is the reason I am slightly concerned by a particular section of his recent speech at an event in Scotland looking at ten years of the Scottish FOI Act.

The section in question dealt with his envy of his Scottish counterparts. They, he observed, have relatively greater resources, and the Scottish Information Commissioner, unlike him, has a constitutional status that bolsters her independence, but also he envied

the simple and straightforward appeals mechanism in the Scottish legislation. The Scottish Commissioner’s decision is final, subject only to an appeal to the Court of Session on a point of law.

By contrast, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, under section 57 of FOIA, there is a right of appeal to a tribunal (the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights)). Under section 58(2) the Tribunal may review any finding of fact by the IC – this means that the Tribunal is able to substitute its own view for that of the commissioner. In Scotland, by contrast, as Graham indicates, the commissioner’s decision is only able to be overturned if it was wrong as a matter of law.

But there is another key difference arising from the different appellate systems: an appeal to the Tribunal is free, whereas in Scotland an application to the Court of Session requires a fee to be paid (currently £202). Moreover, a court is a different creature to a tribunal: the latter aims to “adopt procedures that are less complicated and more informal” and, as Sir Andrew Leggatt noted in his key 2001 report Tribunals for Users: One System, One Service

Tribunals are intended to provide a simple, accessible system of justice where users can represent themselves

It is very much easier for a litigant to represent herself in the Information tribunal, than it would be in a court.

Clearly, the situation as it currently obtains in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – free right of appeal to a Tribunal which can take a merits view of the case – will lead to more appeals, but isn’t that rather the point? There should be a straightforward way of challenging the decisions of a regulator on access to information matters. Graham bemoans that he is “having to spend too much of my very limited resources on Tribunals and lawyers” but I could have more sympathy if it was the case that this was purely wasted expenditure – if the appeals made were futile and changed nothing – but the figures don’t bear this out. Graham says that this year there have been 179 appeals; I don’t know where his figures are from, but from a rough totting-up of the cases listed on the Tribunal’s website I calculated that there have been about 263 decisions promulgated this year, of which 42 were successful. So, very far from showing an appeal to be a futile exercise, these figures suggest that approximately 1 in 5 was successful (at least in the first instance). What is also notable though, is the small but significant number of consent orders – nine this year. A consent order will result where the parties no longer contest the proceedings, and agree on terms to conclude them. It is speculation on my part but I would be very interested to know how many of those nine orders resulted from the IC deciding on the arguments submitted that his position was no longer sustainable.

What I’m getting at is that the IC doesn’t always get things right in the first instance; therefore, a right of appeal to an independent fact-finding tribunal is a valuable one for applicants. I think it is something we should be proud of, and we should feel sorry for FOI applicants in Scotland who are forced into court litigation (and proving an error of law) in order to challenge a decision there.

Ultimately, the clue to Graham’s disapproval of the right of appeal to Tribunal lies in the words “limited resources”. I do sympathise with his position – FOI regulation is massively underfunded by the government, and I rather suspect that, with better resourcing, Graham would take a different view. But I think his speech was particularly concerning because the issue of whether there should be a fee for bringing a case in the Tribunal was previously raised by the government, in its response to post-legislative scrutiny of FOIA. Things have gone rather quiet on this since, but might Graham’s speech herald the revival of such proposals?

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

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Filed under access to information, Freedom of Information, Information Commissioner, Information Tribunal

FOI disclosure of personal data: balancing of interests

In June this year I blogged about the case of AB v A Chief Constable (Rev 1) [2014] EWHC 1965 (QB). In that case, Mr Justice Cranston had held that, when determining whether personal data is being or has been processed “fairly” (pursuant to the first principle of Schedule One of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA))

assessing fairness involves a balancing of the interests of the data subject in non-disclosure against the public interest in disclosure [¶75]

I was surprised by this reading in of an interests balance to the first principle, and said so in my post. Better people than I disagreed, and I certainly am even less sure now than I was of the correctness of my view.

In any case, the binding authority of the High Court rather trumps my meanderings, and it is cited in a recent decision of the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights) in support of a ruling that the London Borough of Merton Council must disclose, under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA), an email sent to a cabinet member of that council by Stephen Hammond MP. The Tribunal, in overturning the decision of the Information Commissioner, considered the private interests of Mr Hammond, including the fact that he had objected to the disclosure, but felt that these did not carry much weight:

we do not consider anything in the requested information to be particularly private or personal and that [sic] this substantially weakens the weight of interest in nondisclosure…We accept that Mr Hammond has objected to the disclosure, which in itself carries some weight as representing his interests. However, asides from an expectation of a general principle of non-disclosure of MP correspondence, we have not been given any reason for this. We have been given very little from the Commissioner to substantiate why Members of Parliament would have an expectation that all their correspondence in relation to official work remain confidential

and balanced against these were the public interests in disclosure, including

no authority had been given for the statement [in the ICO’s decision notice] that MPs expect that all correspondence to remain confidential…[;]…withholding of the requested information was not compatible with the principles of accountability and openness, whereby MPs should subject themselves to public scrutiny, and only withhold information when the wider public interest requires it…[;]…the particular circumstances of this case [concerning parking arrangements in the applicant’s road] made any expectation of confidentiality unreasonable and strongly indicated that disclosure would be fair

The arguments weighed, said the Tribunal, strongly in favour of disclosure.

A further point fell to be considered, however: for processing of personal data to be fair and lawful (per the first data protection principle) there must be met, beyond any general considerations, a condition in Schedule Two DPA. The relevant one, condition 6(1) requires that

The processing is necessary for the purposes of legitimate interests pursued by the data controller or by the third party or parties to whom the data are disclosed, except where the processing is unwarranted in any particular case by reason of prejudice to the rights and freedoms or legitimate interests of the data subject

It has to be noted that “necessary” here in the DPA imports a human rights proportionality test and it “is not synonymous with ‘indispensable’…[but] it implies the existence of a ‘pressing social need'” (The Sunday Times v United Kingdom (1979) 2 EHRR 245). The Tribunal, in what effectively was a reiteration of the arguments about general “fairness”, accepted that the condition would be met in this case, citing the applicant’s arguments, which included the fact that

disclosure is necessary to meet the public interest in making public what Mr Hammond has said to the Council on the subject of parking in Wimbledon Village, and that as an elected MP, accountable to his constituents, disclosure of such correspondence cannot constitute unwarranted prejudice to his interests.

With the exception of certain names within the requested information, the Tribunal ordered disclosure.  Assessing “fairness” now, following Mr Justice Cranston, and not following me, clearly does involve balancing the interests of the data subject against the public interest in disclosure.

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

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Filed under Data Protection, Freedom of Information, Information Commissioner, Information Tribunal