Category Archives: Information Tribunal

Wading through the rules: fairness for litigants in the Information Tribunal

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.


Filed under Freedom of Information, Information Commissioner, Information Tribunal, Upper Tribunal

ICO’s power to refuse to decide cases is rarely used

The “filter” of section 50(2)(c) of the FOI Act allows the Information Commissioner to refuse to make a decision on frivolous or vexatious applications. It is rarely used. What an exciting intro to a blog post eh?

The First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights) (FTT), recently refused an application by Leeds City Council for an award of costs against a requester whose requests had been held by the Information Commissioner (IC), and the FTT itself, as vexatious under section 14(1) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). Alistair Sloan has blogged about the decision itself, and I would commend his piece to readers, but an observation by the judge led me make an FOI request of my own.

After noting that

it must be possible, depending on the circumstances, for the maker of a request regarded by everyone else as vexatious, to defend his or her position on that point without automatically being treated under the costs Rules as behaving unreasonably

the judge adverted to section 50(2)(c) of FOIA. This permits to IC to not make a decision whether a public authority has complied with its FOIA obligations if the application for the decision is itself “frivolous or vexatious”. (This must be distinguished from a decision as to whether the original FOI request to the public authority was, pursuant to section 14(1), vexatious). It gives the IC an exception to the general requirement to make a formal decision on all cases where the applicant asks for one. The judge said

it is right to remember the protections which already exist for public authorities in the context of vexatious requests or hopeless appeals. Before a right of appeal is even a gleam in the Tribunal’s eye, there must be a complaint to the Information Commissioner (ICO). If the complaint to the ICO appears to be “frivolous or vexatious,” then there is no need for him even to make any decision appealable to the Tribunal. See Section 50(2) FIA

but then went on to note that he was

not aware of any published information about the extent to which the ICO makes use of this important provision.

 Ever keen to help our judiciary, I asked the IC, via What Do They Know. With admirable promptness they disclosed to me that, in the years for which records are retained (2007 onwards), the IC has declined to serve a decision notice because he considers the application vexatious or frivolous only 18 times (which breaks down into 16 frivolous and 2 vexatious).

Clearly, the IC considers this exceptional power to be just that – one that should be used only in exceptional cases, and maybe its use in 0.3% of cases accords with that. But in my research for this piece I did dig up again the IC’s submission to the Justice Committee for the latter’s 2012 post-legislative scrutiny of FOIA, and I noticed that there was this comment

For some reason Parliament made a distinction between this provision [section 50(2)(c)] and that in section 14(1) applying to requests to public authorities.

This strikes me as odd. It is quite clear that there is an important distinction between a vexatious request to a public authority and a frivolous or vexatious application for a decision. A requester could make a request to a public authority which was not in any way vexatious, yet choose to pursue the matter by applying for a decision in a way that made that application frivolous or vexatious. And it seems to me that this was what Judge Warren in the FTT was alluding to, and why it would be highly unusual – and potentially oppressive – to award costs against someone appealing a refusal of a vexatious request. Rule 10(1)(b) of the relevant tribunal rules does allow for the award of costs for unreasonably bringing (as opposed to conducting) the proceedings, but the availability of the filter of section 50(2)(c) FOIA should mean that it would be extraordinarily unusual for such an award ever to be made.

A final observation from me. The wording of section 50(2)(c) seems to make it clear that, as the IC would make no decision in a case where the application is frivolous or vexatious, then no possible right of appeal to the FTT could exist (and, therefore, judicial review would be the only legal remedy available). This would be in contrast to cases such as Sugar and (currently at case management stage in the Upper Tribunal) Cross v IC  where what is at issue is whether a decision by the IC that an organisation is not a public authority for the purposes of FOIA constitutes an appealable “decision”.

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Filed under Freedom of Information, Information Commissioner, Information Tribunal, judiciary, vexatiousness

Data Protection – civil and criminal action in tandem

The Guardian reports that

A police force faces a fine from the information commissioner and compensation claims from thousands of motorists after an officer stole accident victims’ details from a police computer and sold them on to personal injury solicitors

The crime here was shocking: the ex-officer, with a co-conspirator, accessed accident victims’ records on police systems, and then rang them, posing as a car repairs company, urging them to claim compensation. She would then pass the information to solicitors for a referral fee. Because there is currently no custodial sentence available for offences under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), and because she was a public officer, she was prosecuted for the offence of misconduct in a public office, and sentenced to three and a half years’ imprisonment (her co-conspirator received three years).

But what interests me is the Guardian’s suggestion, prompted it seems by comments made in court, that the employing police force (Thames Valley Police), as data controller, is potentially to face civil claims from aggrieved individuals and civil enforcement action from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). For the force to be liable to either of these, it must be shown to have contravened its obligations under the DPA. And, contrary to what many people think, the mere fact that a data controller has lost, or had stolen, personal data, does not mean ineluctably that it has contravened the DPA.

The seventh principle of the DPA provides

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

and an allegation of a failure to do so (and hence of a contravention of the obligation, at section 4(4), to comply with the eight DPA principles) is likely to be the basis of any civil action.

Moreover, for civil enforcement, in the form of a monetary penalty notice (MPN), under section 55A, to be taken by the ICO, the contravention must be a “serious” one, “of a kind likely to cause significant damage or significant distress” and the data controller has to have known there was a risk of such a contravention happening, but to have failed to take reasonable steps to prevent it. This presents a series of boxes for the ICO to tick before enforcement action, and his experience in having an MPN recently overturned by the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights) (FTT) will have shown how potentially onerous it is to successfully serve one. In that instance, the FTT found that, although Scottish Borders Council had committed a serious contravention of the seventh principle, in allowing its contractor to dispose of pensions records unsecurely, it was not a of a kind likely to cause significant damage or significant distress (the FTT was unimpressed by the ICO’s claim that data subjects were put at risk of identity fraud).

The test for successful civil claims for compensation (under section 13 DPA) to be brought by data subjects against a data controller is not so onerous, however. All that a claimant needs to show is that there has been “any contravention of any requirements of the Act” by a data controller which has caused the claimant to suffer damage (note that it doesn’t have to have been a “serious” contravention, and the damage doesn’t have to have been serious, but it must have been real damage, not merely the likelihood of such). If the claimant can prove she has suffered damage, she may also be able to claim for consequent distress (the law as it stands does not permit compensation for distress alone).

But, if the personal data in question has been compromised, or lost, through no attributable fault of the data controller, then no liability can attach to them. This may often be the case with a “rogue employee”, and is the reason that, often, criminal prosecution of an individual will not run parallel with civil claims or enforcement action against a data controller. I blogged on the contrary position recently, arguing that if someone was not criminally liable for data loss, then would the (civil) liability attach to the data controller? And, of course, it does not mean that the two cannot run in parallel – Tim Turner blogged last week on the civil MPN served on the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, after it was subject to a criminal act not by a rogue employee, but by a hacker. As Tim suggests, being victim of a criminal act does not give you a shield against enforcement action, when you are shown to have allowed the criminal act to happen, through contravening your obligations under the DPA.

In the case of Thames Valley Police, it may well be that there are details which were available to the court but not made public, and I do not intend to speculate on the chances of successful civil claims or enforcement action, but it will be an interesting case to watch develop.


Filed under Data Protection, Information Commissioner, Information Tribunal, monetary penalty notice, police

Reflections on the monetary penalty notice served on British Pregnancy Advisory Service

On 28 February the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) served a Monetary Penalty Notice (MPN), pursuant to powers under section 55A of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), on the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, in the sum of £200,000 (which would be reduced to £160,000 if promptly paid). The ICO’s new release explains

An ICO investigation found the charity didn’t realise its own website was storing the names, address, date of birth and telephone number of people who asked for a call back for advice on pregnancy issues. The personal data wasn’t stored securely and a vulnerability in the website’s code allowed [a] hacker to access the system and locate the information.

The hacker threatened to publish the names of the individuals whose details he had accessed, though that was prevented after the information was recovered by the police following an injunction obtained by the BPAS

The back story to this is that the hacker in question was subsequently jailed for 32 months for offences under the Computer Misuse Act 1990 (no doubt the prosecutors recognised that the criminal sanctions under the DPA were too weedy to bother with).

The section 55A DPA powers are triggered where there has been a qualifying serious contravention by a data controller of its obligations under section 4(4) to comply with the data protection principles in Schedule One. The most pertinent of these in the instant case (and in the large majority of ICO MPNs) was the seventh

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

which extends to the need to, when contracting with someone to process data on your behalf, require them to take equivalent security measures and evidence this contractual provision in writing. As the ICO’s MPN says

BPAS failed to take appropriate technical and organisational measures against the unauthorised processing of personal data stored on the BPAS website such as having a detailed specification about the parameters of the CMS to ensure that either the website did not store any personal data or alternatively, that effective and appropriate security measures were applied such as storing administrative passwords securely; ensuring stated standards of communication confidentiality were met; carrying out appropriate security testing on the website which would have alerted them to the vulnerabilities that were present or ensuring that the underlying software supporting the website was kept up to date

(Interestingly, the MPN also makes clear that there was a contravention of the fifth principle – which provides that “personal data processed for any purpose or purposes shall not be kept for longer than is necessary for that purpose or those purposes”. This was because “the call back details were kept for five years longer than was necessary for [BPAS’s] purposes”).

 The original crime was a particularly nasty one – the offender appears to have had an ideological, or at least personal, opposition to abortion in general, and the apparently very real threat to publish people’s details, given to BPAS in highly sensitive circumstances, is probably what elevated the BPAS contravention to a level which justifies such a high sum being served on a charity. However, BPAS have announced that they intend to appeal, and their press release about this is interesting. It suggests that the appeal will be not about the issuing of the MPN, but about its amount (section 55B(5) DPA permits appeals on either basis):

We accept that no hacker should have been able to steal our data but we are horrified by the scale of the fine

but it goes on to make the valid point that, by serving an MPN of this large amount, the ICO potentially gives the offender something that he wanted – to harm the charity:

 It is appalling that a hacker who acted on the basis of his opposition to abortion should see his actions rewarded in this way

This, though, seems to be a matter of ethics, rather than law, but it will be interesting to note if the argument makes it in some form into the grounds of appeal. More likely, if the challenge is to be made solely on the amount (under section 55B(5)(b)), focus will fall on to the suggestion that

This fine seems out of proportion when compared with those levelled against other organisations who were not themselves the victims of a crime

Of course, by a circular argument, the “fine” would not have been served, if the data controller had not, by its omissions, permitted itself to be a victim of the crime.

An extra frisson is caused when one considers the compelling argument by the solicitor-advocates for Scottish Borders Council, who successfully helped the latter win an appeal of an MPN last year. Although their argument – that MPNs were more correctly to be considered criminal, as opposed to civil, penalties – did not fall to be decided by the First-tier Tribunal, it did observe that

One general question hovering over this appeal is whether proceedings in respect of monetary penalties are “criminal” in nature. There are certainly enough indications, not least in the title of the amending statute, [the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008] to make an arguable case for them being so…We have concluded that there is no need for us to make any decision or pronouncement in the abstract; but there is a need for us to be vigilant to ensure that the proceedings are fair

If this line of argument continues to be developed – that recipients of MPNs are entitled to be afforded the equivalent rights to fairness, of hearing under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, afforded to those accused of crimes – then MPNs, and the circumstances and manner in which they are served, may be subject to a much greater level of scrutiny, and the cash-strapped ICO may find itself under even more pressure from legal challenges.

These issues may be aired, and possibly determined, in the forthcoming appeal on the Upper Tribunal of the MPN served on Christopher Niebel, and subsequently overturned by the First-tier Tribunal.


Filed under Data Protection, human rights, Information Commissioner, Information Tribunal, monetary penalty notice

Making Motorman names public

UPDATE: 7 January 2014

In the comments to this piece the requester has informed me that the ICO is appealing this decision. Given how long the Upper Tribunal takes to turn things round, I don’t think we’ll be seeing these names for some time (if at all – if the ICO succeeds). I’ll keep the original post up though for the time being


So…will we get to see the names of the Operation Motorman journalists within the next week? Or will there need to be a bit of an extra push?

I tweeted earlier today to the effect that time is nearly up for the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to disclose names of some of the journalists named in the ICO “What Price Privacy” report as having engaged the services of rogue private investigator Steve Whittamore, who was convicted in 2005  under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) of offences of illegally obtaining personal data.

My blog post from earlier this month describes how the First-tier Tribunal ordered on 29 November 2013, after a rather convoluted series of hearings on the papers, that the ICO disclose within 35 days

many, but not all, of the names of journalists recorded…as clients of the investigator at the heart of Operation Motorman…together with the names of the media outlet with which [they were recorded as having been] associated at the time

By my calculations, those 35 days are up at 17:00 next Monday (see part 2.8 of Civil Procedure Rules and rule 12(1) of The Tribunal Procedure (First-tier Tribunal) (General Regulatory Chamber) Rules 2009). This is, of course, unless the ICO has appealed the decision, but, as at 19 December, no such appeal appeared to have been lodged.

It is possible, however – bear in mind that the Order was for disclosure within 35 days – that the information has already been disclosed to the applicant – a Mr Christopher Colenso-Dunne. If that is the case, and if the applicant chooses not to make it public, then we may not yet see those names (it has been suggested to me that the person by that name for whom Google gives a search return may not be the applicant here). The Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) does not, in strict terms, oblige a public authority to make information public. Rather, it must “communicate” information to a person who has requested it (subject to the application of any exemptions). Although it is often said that disclosure under FOIA is to be taken as disclosure to the world at large, this operates as a concept, not a requirement. Some public authorities do, however, operate a “disclosure log” where some or all information disclosed under FOIA is made publicly available.

The ICO itself has a disclosure log, although it restricts this to responses “which we feel are of wider public interest”. There also appears to be a bit of lag in uploading responses (the last was one from 18 October).

One would certainly hope that, if the ICO is not appealing the decision, it will proactively disclose the information ordered to be disclosed. But, just in case, I’ve made a FOIA request for the same information, via, where it would be available for anyone to see (and which, of course, I’ll withdraw if the information becomes public in the interim).


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

ICO must disclose Motorman journalists’ names

The ICO has been ordered to disclose the names of some of the journalists referred to in “What Price Privacy” as having engaged the services of rogue private investigator Steve Whittamore

In April 2006 the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) published “What Price Privacy?” on what it described as “the unlawful trade in personal information”. The report revealed

evidence of systematic breaches in personal privacy that amount to an unlawful trade in confidential personal information

Those breaches were potential criminal offences under section 55 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), and the report – which drew on the findings of documentation seized during Operation Motorman, arising from the activities of private investigator Steve Whittamore, said

Among the ‘buyers’ are many journalists looking for a story. In one major case investigated by the ICO, the evidence included records of information supplied to 305 named journalists working for a range of newspapers

In December 2006 the six-month follow-up report “What Price Privacy Now?” was published. This gave further details about the 305 journalists mentioned in the first report, and broke the data down into “Publication”, “Number of transactions positively identified” and “Number of journalists/clients using the services”.

And of course, this trade in personal information formed the basis of the first module (“The relationship between the press and the public and looks at phone-hacking and other potentially illegal behaviour”) of part one of Lord Justice (as he was then) Leveson’s inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press.

In 2011 a request was made under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) to the ICO, for (1) “the number of transactions per journalist of each of the 305 identified journalists for each of the 32 identified publications” and (2) the journalists’ identities. The first request was refused by the ICO, on the basis that it would require a search through 17000 documents, and, therefore, section 12 of FOIA provided a statutory cost limit which meant it did not have to comply. Having been given these apparent facts the requester dropped his first request, but pursued the second. This was also refused, on the basis that the information was exempt under section 40(2) and section 44 of FOIA (the latter by virtue of the statutory bar on disclosure at section 59 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA)), in both cases because disclosure would be an unfair and unlawful disclosure of personal data of the journalists involved.

Because the ICO is the regulator of FOIA, a complaint about its handling of a FOIA request falls to be determined by the same office (a statutory arrangement which was to be described as an “unusual, and unsatisfactory, feature” of the law by the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights) (FTT)). Accordingly, the office (describing itself as “the Commissioner”, as distinct from the “ICO”, which was the authority refusing the request) issued a Decision Notice which held that

the ICO correctly withheld the information by virtue of section 40(2). He has also found that the information could also be correctly withheld by virtue of section 44(1)

This decision was appealed to the FTT, which has today, after what has clearly been complex and strongly argued litigation, handed down three judgments (1, 2, 3) (two of which were preliminary or interim rulings, publication of which has been held back until now) which are, taken together, extraordinary, both for their criticism of the ICO, and for the outcome.

Taken as a whole the judgments find that, regarding some of the journalists named in the information held by the ICO, the balance of the public interest in receiving the information outweighs the legitimate interest of an individual to protect his or her privacy.

The FTT found that the information wasn’t sensitive personal data (which is afforded a greater level of protection by the DPA). This is at first blush rather surprising: section 2(2) of the DPA provides that sensitive data will be, inter alia, “data consisting of information as to…the commission or alleged commission by [the data subject] of any offence”. However, the FTT found that, although the information

does contain evidence that the investigator [Whittamore] engaged by the journalist committed, or contemplated committing, criminal activity. And, self-evidently, it discloses that the investigator received some form of instruction from the journalist. But there is no suggestion…that the journalist had instructed the investigator to use unlawful methods or that he or she had turned a blind eye to their adoption or, indeed, whether he or she had in fact expressly forbidden the investigator from doing anything that was not strictly legal [para 11 of third ruling]

The FTT had also invited submissions from the parties on the significance to the instant case of some of the passages from the Leveson inquiry, and, having received them, took note from those passages of

the issues of impropriety (which, while very possibly not involving criminality on journalists’ part, is nevertheless serious) and corporate governance in the context of the privacy rights of the [journalists]. We believe that, together, they give rise to a very substantial interest in the public knowing the identities of those who instructed the investigators [para 18 of third ruling]

But also tending towards favouring disclosure in the public interest was Leveson’s suggested criticisms of the ICO

We also give some weight to the public interest in knowing more about the information which was in the possession of the ICO and which the Leveson Report suggested it failed adequately to pursue [para 18 of third ruling]

The FTT noted the interests of the journalists, for instance that they would have had an expectation that details of their day-to-day professional activities would remain confidential, and that the Commissioner had argued that

publication of information indicating that they had engaged the services of the investigators concerned would be so unfair as to outweigh the factors in favour of disclosure [para 19 of third ruling]

but the FTT also noted, in effect, that the journalists involved must have had some idea of what was going on when they engaged Whittamore

it must have been well known within the profession what types of information could be obtained with the help of investigators, even if the means of obtaining it were not fully understood. The rights of individuals under data protection laws would also have been widely known at the time. In those circumstances those engaging the particular services…should have known that they ran the risk of becoming involved in behaviour that fell short of acceptable standards. This seriously dilutes the weight to be attributed to their privacy rights and leads us to conclude that the balance tips in favour of disclosure [para 19 of third ruling]

Accordingly, and, unless there is an appeal (Iwould be surprised if there isn’t) the names of some of the journalists who engaged Whittamore must be disclosed.

Other matters – criticism of ICO

In its preliminary ruling (November 2012) the FTT makes some trenchant criticism of the ICO’s handling of the requester’s first request (even though, as the requester did not pursue it, it was outwith the FTT’s jurisdiction). The refusal on costs grounds had been made, based upon a statement that the information requested had not been recorded in a database. Yet less than two months later the Leveson inquiry began, and, at that inquiry, evidence presented by the ICO effectively, in the FTT’s view, contradicted this statement

 we do not understand how the Appellant could have been given such a misleading response to the First Information Request…as a result of the misleading information given to the Appellant, he was not able to pursue his request…We only became aware of the ICO’s error after the Appellant drew our attention to the evidence presented to the Leveson Inquiry regarding the Spreadsheets. We assume (and certainly hope) that those in the Commissioner’s office handling this appeal had not become aware sooner [para 28 of first ruling]

The ICO clearly did not take well to this criticism, because the second interim ruling records that

the Commissioner has complained about part of the decision which he believes includes unfair criticism of his office and has asked us to correct the impression given [para 3 of second ruling]

but the FTT stood firm, saying

We continue to believe that our criticism was justified. The Appellant was told that he was wrong to assume that any database of information existed that could be interrogated…However, it is now known that the ICO held the Spreadsheets at the time…[and although the information in them] may not have provided the Appellant with precisely the information he requested, but it would have come close. Against that background we believe that the ICO was open to criticism for asserting, without further qualification, that it would be necessary to search through the 17,000 documents in order to respond to the request. [para 6 of second ruling]


Filed under Confidentiality, Data Protection, Freedom of Information, Information Commissioner, Information Tribunal, journalism, Leveson, Privacy

Reducing regulation…by clogging up the courts

The only thing that made me stop laughing about the Cabinet Office’s arguments in a doomed Tribunal appeal was thinking about the cost to the public purse.

Soon after it was formed the coalition government made an admirable commitment to cut government red tape, by reducing the amount of domestic regulation

Through eliminating the avoidable burdens of regulation and bureaucracy, the Government aims to promote growth, innovation and social action

A Cabinet sub-committee – the Reducing Regulation Committee (RRC) – was set up, to “take strategic oversight of the delivery of the Government’s regulatory framework”.

Around the same time the government was also trumpeting its transparency agenda, with the Prime Minister saying, in an Observer article in September 2010

For too long those in power made decisions behind closed doors, released information behind a veil of jargon and denied people the power to hold them to account. This coalition is driving a wrecking ball through that culture – and it’s called transparency

One might not have supposed, therefore, that it would have been necessary in August 2012 for a request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) to be made, for (merely) the number of times the RRC had met. Surely this is the sort of information which should be made public as a matter of course? But it was necessary. Moreover, this particular door stayed shut, despite the gentle tapping of transparency’s wrecking ball, when the Cabinet Office refused the request, citing the FOIA exemption which applies to information held by a government department which relates to a) the formulation or development of government policy, or (b) Ministerial communications (section 35(1)(a) and (b)).

The Cabinet Office continued to argue that this exemption was engaged, and that the public interest favoured non-disclosure, when the requester complained to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). And when the ICO held that, yes, the exemption was engaged, but, no, the public interest favoured disclosure , the Cabinet Office appealed the decision.

The First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights) (FTT) has now handed down its judgment, and it makes amusing if dispiriting reading. Wholly unsurprisingly, the ICO’s decision is upheld, and it seems that the Cabinet Office’s argument boils down to two main points: “if we tell you how often the RRC has met then it might mislead you into missing all the great work being done elsewhere, and as a result that great work elsewhere might be adversely affected” (my apologies to the Cabinet Office if this misrepresents their position, but I’ve really tried my best).

The FTT had very little time for these arguments. The only thing vaguely in the Cabinet Office’s favour was that, as a lot of information about “reducing regulation” processes was already publicly available, the public interest in disclosure was small. But, rather devastatingly, the FTT says

the public interest in maintaining the exemption is so weak that it does not equal, let alone outweigh, the, admittedly light, public interest in disclosure (para 27) [emphasis added]

It is worth reading the judgment (which I won’t dissect in detail), as an example of a particularly weak argument against FOIA disclosure, but I would add three closing observations from which you might deduce my level of approval of the Cabinet Office’s conduct:

1. this was a request simply and merely for the number of times a government committee has met (how “transparent” is a refusal to disclose that?)
2. taking a case to FTT is not without significant costs implications (bear in mind this was an oral hearing, with a witness, and with counsel instructed on both sides)
3. the whole litigation in any case carries a huge hint as to the nature/substance of the information held (if the RRC had met often, would the Cabinet Office really want to withhold that fact?)

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Filed under Cabinet Office, Freedom of Information, Information Commissioner, Information Tribunal, transparency

Knowing what to overlook

The Upper Tribunal has allowed an appeal by an appellant whose pre-hearing language and allegations had led the First-tier Tribunal to strike out his case.

In a recently handed down judgment Upper Tribunal Judge Jacobs says

Most appellants correspond with the tribunal only when necessary, make moderate criticisms and allegations, and express themselves politely. There is, however, a small body of appellants who are persistent in their correspondence which contains wild allegations that are expressed in an intemperate or aggressive tone…

What gave rise to the proceedings in question was an appeal, by a certain Mr Dransfield, of a decision by the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights) (FTT) to strike out proceedings remitted to it by a decision of Judge Wikely in the Upper Tribunal (UT). That remittal decision was case reference GIA/1053/2011 – unhelpfully not currently available on the UT website – and is not to be confused with another (leading) decision by Wikely J in relation to an unsuccessful appeal by Mr Dransfield (reference GIA/3037/2011).

The FTT struck out the remitted case using powers conferred by rule 8(3)(b) of Tribunal Procedure (First-tier Tribunal) (General Regulatory Chamber) Rules 2009 (SI No 1976) (“the Rules”), which permits a strike-out if

the appellant has failed to co-operate with the Tribunal to such an extent that the Tribunal cannot deal with the proceedings fairly and justly

It appears that Mr Dransfield was warned by the FTT judge by a direction on 11 January 2012 (I think this should say “2013”, but I quote from paragraph 4 of the UT’s judgment) about the unfortunate, although perhaps unintentional “hectoring tone” of his emails, and rule 8(3)(b) was specifically cited to Mr Dransfield, with the observation that

Co-operation, in this context, includes using moderate language and an appropriate tone 

The warning was reinforced orally, and repeated on 29 April 2013.

Despite this, Mr Dransfield then sent an email on 12 May 2013, which the UT declines to quote in full but which is described thus

Mr Dransfield accused the Commissioner and Council of ‘conniving and colluding to pervert the Course of Justice’ and of producing ‘a pack of lies and deception’. He later referred twice to a ‘wider conspiracy to pervert the course of justice’ and said that there was sufficient evidence to justify arresting the Commissioner’s legal representative and Judge Wikeley for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice

Accordingly, the proceedings were struck out, the same day.

Interestingly (and no doubt to the frustration of some of those involved), Mr Dransfield’s appeal of this strike out has succeeded. Jacobs J  follows the words I quote at the start of this piece with

It is usually possible to deal with that small minority of appellants without resorting to the power to strike out proceedings. It is possible to ban a party from using emails and direct that any that are sent will be ignored. Another way is to limit a party to communicating in writing and only when requested, with other letters being filed but ignored. At a hearing, it is possible to limit the time allowed to a party or, if necessary, to require a party to leave the hearing room. In my experience, measures such as this are usually effective

In short, Jacobs J says that case management powers can be properly used to manage a potentially difficult litigant, and should not in this case have led to the “draconian step” of striking out Mr Dransfield’s appeal. The type of allegation made by Mr Dransfield is “regularly made in appeals before this Chamber and just as regularly ignored by the judges”.  The power to strike out and the duty to cooperate are in a “reciprocal relationship” with the overriding objective “to enable the Tribunal to deal with cases fairly and justly” at Rule 2, and specifically those parts of Rule 2 which require flexibility in the proceedings (2(2)(b)) and that the parties are able to participate fully in the proceedings (2(2)(c)).

Jacobs J ends his judgment by noting that the FTT could have employed more flexible responses “without depriving Mr Dransfield of his right of appeal” and observes, by quoting William James

‘the art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.’

Very true, but I think I would just add a general point that – sometimes – some things can be too big to overlook. There will still be some cases where the failure to comply with the duty to cooperate properly merits the striking out of proceedings.


Filed under Freedom of Information, Information Tribunal, Upper Tribunal, vexatiousness

Will there be blood?

The First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights) (FTT) has overturned a decision by the Information Commissioner that the Northern Ireland Department for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) should disclose advice received by the Minister of that Department from the Attorney General for Northern Ireland regarding a policy of insisting on a lifetime ban on males who have had sex with other males (“MSM”) donating blood.

On 11 October 2013 the Northern Ireland High Court handed down judgment in a judicial review application, challenging the decision of the Minister and the DHSSPS maintain the lifetime ban. The challenge arose because, in 20011, across the rest of the UK, the blanket ban which had existed since 1985 had been lifted.

DHSSPS lost the judicial review case, and lost relatively heavily: the decision of the Minister was unlawful for reasons that i) the Secretary of State, and not the Minister, by virtue of designation under the Blood Safety and Quality Regulations 2005, was responsible for whether to maintain or not the lifetime ban, ii) similarly, as (European) Community law dictated that this was a reserved matter (an area of government policy where the UK Parliament keeps the power to make legislate in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales), the decision was an act which was incompatible with Community law, iii) the Minister had taken a decision in breach of the Ministerial Code, by failing to refer the matter, under Section 20 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, to the Executive Committee, and iv) although a ban in itself might have been defensible, the fact that blood was then imported from the rest of the UK (where the ban had been lifted) rendered the decision irrational.

Running almost concurrently with the judicial review proceedings was a request, made under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA), for advice given to the Minister by the Attorney General for Ireland. The FOIA exemption, at section 42, for information covered by legal professional privilege (LPP) was thus engaged. The original decision notice by the Information Commissioner had rather surprisingly found that it was advice privilege, as opposed to litigation privilege. The IC correctly observed that for litigation privilege to apply

at the time of the creation of the information, there must have been a real prospect or likelihood of litigation occurring, rather than just a fear or possibility

and, because the information was dated October 2011, and leave for judicial review had not been sought until December 2011

at the time the information was created, ltigation was nothing more than a possibility

But one questions whether this can be correct, when one learns from the FTT judgment that DHSSPS had been sent a pre-action protocol letter on 27 September 2011. Again rather surprisingly, though, the FTT does not appear to have made a clear decision one way or the other which type of privilege applied, but its observation that

when the request was made judicial review proceedings…were already underway

would imply that they disagreed with the IC.

This discrepancy might lie behind the fact that the FTT afforded greater weight to the public interest in favour of maintaining the exemption. It was observed that

[the existence of the proceedings] at the time of the request seems to us to be an additional specific factor in favour of maintaining the exemption. It seems unfair that a public authority engaged in litigation should have a unilateral duty to disclose its legal advice [para 19]

Additionally, the fact that the advice was sought after the decision had been taken meant that it could give “no guide to the Minister’s motives or reasoning”.

Ultimately – and this is suggestive that the issue was finely balanced – it was the well-established inherent public interest in the maintenance of LPP which prevailed (para 21). This was a factor of “general importance” as found in a number of cases summarised by the Upper Tribunal in DCLG v The Information Commissioner and WR (2012) UKUT 103 (AAC).

Because the appeal succeeded on the grounds that the section 42 exemption applied, the FTT did not go on to consider the other exemptions pleaded by DHSSPS and the Attorney General – sections 35(1)(a) and 35(1)(c), although it was very likely that the latter at least would have also applied.

Aggregation of public interest factors

Because the other exemptions did not come into play, the FTT’s observation on the IC’s approach to public interest factors where more than one exemption applies are strictly obiter, but they are important nonetheless. As all good Information Rights people know, the European Court of Justice ruled in 2011, that when more than one exception applies to disclosure of information under the Environmental Information Regulations 20040 (EIR), the public authority may (not must)  weigh the public interest in disclosure against the aggregated weight of the public interest arguments for maintaining all the exceptions. The IC does not accept that this aggregation approach extends to FOIA, however (see para 73 of his EIR exceptions guidance) and this was reflected in his decision notice in this matter, which considered separately the public interest balance in respect of the two exemptions he took into account. He invited the FTT to take the same approach, but, said the FTT, had the need arisen, the IC would have needed to justify how this “piecemeal approach” tallied with the requirement at section 2(2)(b) of FOIA to consider “all the circumstances of the case”. Moreover, the effect of the IC’s differing approaches under EIR and FOIA means that

there will be a large number of cases in which public authorities, the ICO and the Tribunal will be required to make a sometimes difficult decision about which disclosure regime applies in order to find out how to conduct the public interest balancing exercise

I am not aware of anywhere that the IC has explained his reasoning that aggregation does not apply in FOIA, and it would be helpful to know, before the matter becomes litigated (as it surely will).

And I will just end this rather long and abstruse piece with two personal observations. Firstly, donating blood is simple, painless and unarguably betters society – anyone who can, should donate. Secondly, denying gay men the ability, in this way, to contribute to this betterment of society is absurd, illogical and smacks of bigotism.

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Filed under Environmental Information Regulations, Europe, Freedom of Information, Information Commissioner, Information Tribunal, Upper Tribunal

Walberswick Vexatiousness

Back in August of this year I blogged about an interesting decision by the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights) (FTT) which approached the subject of “vexatiousness” (section 14(1) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) by observing that what might be an excessively burdensome to a small public authority (such as a rural parish council) might not be so to a large public authority.

The public authority in question was Walberswick Parish Council, and, since that decision, there have been two others, meaning that Walberswick now has more experience in the FTT than most county councils and many other huge public authorities.

All three cases relate to refusals to disclose information on the grounds that the requests were vexatious, and the most recent – McCarthy v IC & Walberswick Parish Council – is no different: and, indeed, they all follow the line of authority on vexatiousness laid down by the Upper Tribunal earlier this year in ICO v Devon County Council and Dransfield GIA/3037/2011. What is noteworthy, however, is the disapproval with which the judge clearly views the continuing vexatious requests being made to Walberswick:

WPC is a parish council, not a department of state. The limits on its resources were well-known to the Appellant and to everybody else involved in this unhappy saga…It is plain that FOIA requests, both those made by the Appellant and the others of which he was concurrently aware, reduced WPC to paralysis…Furthermore, it was perfectly plain to any sensible individual and without doubt to one of the Appellant`s sophistication and social awareness that such pressure would drive elected and ultimately appointed councillors from office, as well as their clerk, who was at the centre of the battle.

Indeed, so concerned was the FTT that, very unusually, it put future requesters on warning on potential costs

WPC will not function as a democratically elected body until this bombardment by FOIA requests ceases. That may well mean that, as here, intrinsically reasonable requests for information are treated as vexatious if part and parcel of a sustained assault motivated by a desire to disrupt. Crippling a parish council by subjecting it to ceaseless interrogation is not a sensible way to improve its service to local residents nor to fulfil its duties under FOIA…it is highly unlikely that any future appeal from this parish council will be decided on different principles or without regard to the outcome of this and earlier appeals relating to Walberswick. Unsuccessful appeals by campaigning requesters may well attract the unusual sanction of orders for costs

(In passing, I would query whether this statement is potentially prejudicial to future cases in the FTT, and could actually deter people from making legitimate requests. In fact, it seems to suggest that any FOIA request to Walberswick could be considered to be prima facie vexatious. In fairness to the FTT though, this is merely the outcome of the “sustained assault” by the current campaigners).

Awards of costs in the FTT are very rare (I can only recall three cases). To put as-yet-unknown requesters, who haven’t yet made requests, on notice is a measure of how seriously the FTT view the harm caused by a campaign such as that experienced by Walberswick. In administrative law we already have the concept of Wednesbury Unreasonableness – one wonders if, in this particular branch of administrative law, we should start using Walberswick Vexatiousness as a term of art?

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Filed under Freedom of Information, Information Tribunal, Upper Tribunal, vexatiousness