Category Archives: Information Tribunal

Lots of FOI contempt applications in the wings

A new piece on the Mishcon de Reya site: the First-tier Tribunal is dealing with at least eight applications to certify contempt of court for failure by public authorities to comply with decision notices.

FOI enforcement starts to get serious?

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First ever FOI contempt certification

I’ve written a piece on the Mishcon de Reya website on the first ever case of certification of contempt of court to the High Court, for failure to comply with a decision notice.

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What John Edwards will inherit

The new Information Commissioner will have a lot on his plate. I’m going to focus very briefly on what is, objectively, a very small matter but which, to me, illustrates much about priorities within the ICO.

On 29 July I happened to notice an Information Tribunal decision which I thought was slightly odd, in that apparently both the Tribunal, and the Commissioner beforehand, had dealt with it under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 rather than the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, despite the subject matter (a tree inspection report) appearing to fall squarely under the latter’s ambit.

However, the decision notice appealed (referred to as FS5081345 in the Tribunal judgment), does not appear on the ICO’s searchable online database (in fact, no decisions relating to the public authority – the mighty Great Wyrley Parish Council – are listed). It’s unusual but certainly not unheard of for decision notices not to get uploaded (either by overlook, or – occasionally – for other, legal reasons) but in the past when I’ve asked for one of these, informally, it’s been provided by return.

So I used the ICO’s online Chat function to ask for a copy of the decision notice. However, I was told I had to submit a request in writing (of course I’d already done so – the Chat function is in writing, after all, but let’s not quibble). I said I was concerned that what was a simple request would get sucked up into the ICO’s own FOI processes, but the person on the Chat thought I would get a response within a couple of days.

Those who’ve stayed this far into the blogpost will be unsurprised to hear what happened next – my simple request got sucked into the ICO’s own FOI processes, and more than seven weeks on (more than three weeks beyond the statutory timescale for responding) I have still had no response, and no indication of why not, other than the pressure the FOI team is under.

And that last point is key: if the ICO’s own FOI caseworkers are under such pressure that they cannot deal with a very simple request within the legal timescale, nor update me in any meaningful way as to why, something has surely gone wrong.

At a recent NADPO webinar Dr Neil Bhatia spoke about his own difficulties with getting information out of the ICO through FOI. He (and I) were challenged by one of the other speakers on why we didn’t more regularly take formal action to force the issue. It was a fair point, and prompted me yesterday to ask the ICO for a formal decision under section 50 of the FOI Act (which means the ICO will have to issue an FOI decision notice on whether the ICO handled an FOI request for an FOI request in accordance with the law – and that sentence itself illustrates the ridiculousness of the situation).

This isn’t the only FOI request I have that the ICO is late responding to. I have one going back to May this year and another to June (albeit on rather more complex subjects). And I know that I and Dr Bhatia are not alone.

All the fine talk from the current Commissioner about forging international data protection accords, and encouraging “data driven innovation” can’t prevent a perception that her office seems increasingly to have left FOI regulation (and in some cases its own FOI compliance) behind. The right to access information is (part of) a fundamental right (just as is the right to data protection). If the ICO doesn’t want the role, is it time for a separate FOI Commissioner?

The views in this post (and indeed most 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, Environmental Information Regulations, Freedom of Information, Information Commissioner, Information Tribunal, rule of law

FOI – there’s no (jurisdictional) limits

Practitioners tend to have a few mantras about the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). Some of those mantras admit of exceptions (“it’s requester and motive blind” may, for instance, fall away where the wider context of the request needs to be considered in “vexatious” cases) but the mantra that “anyone, anywhere can make a request” had never been seriously challenged, until recently.

In conjoined cases, the First tier Tribunal – apparently, one understands, of its own volition – had raised an issue as to whether FOIA did indeed have extra-territorial application – contrary to the standard approach to statutory construction whereby UK legislation applies only to those who are citizens of the UK, or on its territory – such that requests could be made by anyone, anywhere in the world.

If the Tribunal had decided that the standard approach applied, and no extra-territorial effect was in place, there would have been a significant diminution of rights, and a consequent diminution in the accountability of public authorities. More practically, we would have no doubt seen, at least from some public authorities, identity verification measures being directed at requesters.

Thankfully, the Tribunal decided that there was extra-territorial effect, in a decision handed down orally on 27 January (with written reasons to follow).

There are posts about the case(s) on both Cornerstone Barristers’ and Doughty Street’s websites.

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FOI 101 on “held”

I note that the First-tier Tribunal has recently had to school the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) on one of the real basics of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

A request had been made to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) for past versions of a Joint Working Team (JWT) Manual setting out how the PHSO and the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO) should work together. Rather oddly, the PHSO searched for these, and couldn’t find them. More oddly, the PHSO decided that this meant that it didn’t “hold” the information, for the purposes of FOIA (and directed the requester to LGSCO). Even more oddly, the ICO then upheld the PHSO’s refusal, saying

Copies of the JWT manuals are stored on the LGSCO website and the PHSO argue that it has no control over the production of the manual. The Commissioner is therefore satisfied that the PHSO do not hold copies of the JWT manuals published in March and June 2019

I use the word “oddly”, because one of the first thing FOIA practitioners and lawyers learn is that whether information is “held” for the purposes of FOIA turns on two situations – namely, whether

(a)it is held by the authority, otherwise than on behalf of another person, or

(b)it is held by another person on behalf of the authority.

If either of those applies, then information is held.

In this case, as Her Honour Judge Shanks realised very quickly, when the requester appealed the ICO decision to the First-tier Tribunal, surely a joint working manual, setting out “guidance on key processes and on jurisdictional and policy considerations which have been agreed by the two Ombudsmen”, would be held by both offices? And, if copies were not physically held by the PHSO, any copies physically held by the LGSCO would be held on behalf of the PHSO. Furthermore, HH Judge Shanks noted

Indeed, leaving aside any technical arguments I am puzzled as to why the PHSO did not just get hold of the documents from the LGSCO and pass them over to Mr McDougall, thereby saving a great deal of unnecessary time and expense.

The ICO has good guidance for public authorities on this very topic. Let’s hope they refer to it themselves in future similar cases.

The views in this post (and indeed most 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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Upper Tribunal on enforcement of First-tier Tribunal FOIA decisions

What happens if a public authority does not comply with steps specified in a decision notice issued by the Information Commissioner under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA)? Assuming that no appeal is brought by the authority, then section 54 of FOIA provides that, in such circumstances, the Commissioner may (not “must” – this is a power, not a duty) certify in writing to the High Court (or, in Scotland, the Court of Session) that the authority has failed to comply with that notice, and the court may (after inquiring into the matter) deal with the authority as if it had committed a contempt of court.

This much is, relatively, straightforward, but what happens if the Commissioner’s decision notice doesn’t specify steps the public authority should take – for instance (and most normally) where the Commissioner doesn’t uphold a complaint by the requester, and the latter appeals to the First-tier Tribunal (FTT), with the FTT subsequently upholding the appeal,  substituting its own decision for that of the Commissioner, and itself specifying steps to be taken by the public authority? In those circumstances, who is responsible for (or at least has the power of) enforcement of those steps? Is it the Commissioner, or the FTT itself?

This is not a hypothetical question – the FTT will frequently disagree with the Commissioner – sometimes, of course upholding an appeal by the public authority, but at other times upholding a requester’s appeal, and ordering the public authority to take steps which were not originally specified by the Commissioner. 

The answer, says the Upper Tribunal, in Information Commissioner v Moss and the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames [2020] UKUT 174 (AAC), is that it is for the FTT to enforce, on the (slightly circular sounding) grounds that it has the power to do so, and the Commissioner doesn’t.

The FTT’s power to enforce emanates from paragraph 61(4) of FOIA, which provides that where a person fails to do something, in relation to proceedings before the FTT on an appeal, and if those proceedings were (instead) proceedings before a court which had a power to commit for contempt, and the failure would constitute contempt (such as failing to comply with steps in a substituted decision) the FTT may certify the offence to the Upper Tribunal (in Moss, which related to matters before section 61 was amended by the Data Protection Act 2018, the power was to certify to the High Court, but nothing turns on this).

By contrast, for the Commissioner to control the enforcement of the FTT’s decision would be to offend the “fundamental constitutional principle” as enunciated by Lord Neuberger (in R (Evans) v Attorney General [2015] AC 1787 – also a FOIA case, of course) that “a decision of a court is binding as between the parties, and cannot be ignored or set aside by anyone” (including, one might add, by the Commissioner, upon exercise of her power (not, remember, her duty) to enforce her own decisions by certifying to the High Court).

In Moss Upper Tribunal Judge Jacobs did not have to decide who is responsible for enforcing a decision notice if the FTT dismisses an appeal against it (i.e. where the Commissioner’s original decision, and any specified and required steps are unchanged). He merely noted that “there is authority that, even if an appeal against a decision is dismissed, it thereafter derives its authority from the tribunal’s decision” (which to me, looks like strong obiter indication that he would have, if required to do so, found that the FTT, and not the Commissioner, would also have the enforcement power in those circumstances).

I can recall (purely anecdotally) occasions where successful appellants to the FTT have bemoaned subsequent failure by public authorities promptly to take the steps specified by the FTT in its decision. The position now seems clear – if those steps need enforcement to make them happen, it is to the FTT that the aggrieved requester should turn.

The views in this post (and indeed most 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 rejects data subject appeals under new Data Protection Act

The Information Tribunal has recently heard the first applications under the Data Protection Act 2018 for orders regarding the Information Commissioner’s handling of data protection complaints. As I write on the Mishcon de Reya website, the Tribunal has peremptorily dismissed them.

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Farrow & Ball lose appeal for non-payment of data protection fee

I have a new post on the Mishcon de Reya website, drawing attention to the first (and unsuccessful) attempt to appeal an ICO monetary penalty for failing to pay the statutory data protection fee.

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ICO – “we’re very sorry we fined you”

***Update, 3 September. ICO have now published their apology – although scant on details it does state that “there were significantly fewer complaints than previously evidenced” and that this information led to the withdrawal of the MPN.***

It’s not unusual for the recipient of a monetary penalty notice (MPN) to appeal to the Information Tribunal. It’s not entirely unusual for such appeals to be settled by consent of the parties (normally when one of them concedes that its case is not tenable).

It’s much rarer, however, for a consent order to have attached to it a requirement that the Information Commissioner’s Office should apologise for serving the MPN in the first place. But that’s exactly what has recently happened. A consent order dated 25 September 2018 states that, by consent, the appeal by STS Commercial Limited is allowed, and that

The Commissioner will publish [for four weeks] on the Information Commissioner’s Office website in the section “News, blogs and speeches”, the following statement:

On 6 July 2018 the ICO announced that the Information Commissioner had imposed a fine of £60,000 on STS Commercial Ltd for allowing its lines to be used to send spam texts. STS Commercial Ltd appealed that penalty and upon considering the grounds of appeal, the ICO accepts that the appeal should be allowed and no monetary penalty should be imposed. The ICO apologises to STS Commercial Ltd.

Already, most of the traces of the MPN have been removed from the ICO’s website (and Google returns broken links), although the apology itself does not appear to have yet been uploaded.

Section 55B(5) of the Data Protection 1998 provides for the right of appeal, in respect of MPNs served by the ICO under section 55A for contraventions of the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003. And paragraph 37 of the Tribunal Procedure (First-tier Tribunal) (General Regulatory Chamber) Rules 2009 provides that the Tribunal may

make a consent order disposing of the proceedings and making such other appropriate provision as the parties have agreed

One wonders what on earth occurred that has led not just to the appeal being disposed of, but such contrition from the ICO!

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 Information Commissioner, Information Tribunal, monetary penalty notice, PECR

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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