Environmental Information request appeals and prohibitive costs: new Court of Session rules

The Court of Session has made new rules with a view to preventing court actions relating to the environment from being “prohibitively expensive”. The new court rules introduced orders which will be known as “prohibitive expenses orders”. These new rules are of relevance to readers of this blog as they will apply to appeals against decisions of the Scottish Information Commissioner to the Court of Session where the decision being appealed relates to a request for environmental information under the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 (EIRs).

The EIRs give effect in Scotland (in relation to environmental information held by Scottish public authorities – environmental information held by UK public authorities is covered by the Environmental Information Regulations 2004) to Directive 2003/4/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 28 January 2003 on public access to environmental information. [pdf] This European Directive in turn gives effect to the UN/ECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters [pdf] (‘the Aarhus Convention’). Article 9 of the Aarhus Convention requires that individuals have access to justice in respect of environmental matters and that this should not be “prohibitively expensive”.

With some of the background to these new rules (briefly) explained, what exactly do these new rules mean? In short, they mean that anyone who brings an appeal to the Court of Session against a decision of the Scottish Information Commissioner in respect of a request for environmental information (whether or not the requester knew at the time of making their request that the request was a request for environmental information or not – knowing exactly what is environmental information under the EIRs can be very difficult) can make a motion to the court to have their liability in expenses limited should they ultimately be unsuccesful in their appeal.

A person bringing an appeal to the Court of Session against a relevant decision of the Scottish Information Commissioner will be required to make a motion for a prohibitive expenses order as soon as is reasonably practicable after becoming aware that the appeal is defended. In essence, an appellant will need to make a motion relatively quickly after Answers to the Note of Appeal are intimated to them and any unreasonable delay in doing so is likely going to have an impact upon whether the court makes an order.

The new rules provide that proceedings are to be considered prohibitively expensive if the costs and expenses likely to be incurred by the applicant are likely to exceed the financial means of the party or where are objectively unreasonable having regard to six factors set out in the rules; including whether the applicant has reasonable prospects of success; the complexity of the relevant law and procedure; and whether the case is frivolous.

Where the court is satisfied that the proceedings are prohibitively expensive, it must make a prohibitive expenses order (in otherwords, if the test is met then the court has no discretion over whether an order is made or not). The order will limit the appellant’s expenses to the respondent to £5,000 (or such other sum as may be justified) and will limit the respondent’s expenses to the appellant to £30,000 (or such other sum as may be justified). It therefore seems as though it will be possible for a requester who intervenes in an appeal brought by the scottish public authority to apply to have their liability capped in line with the £5,000 figure rather than the £30,000. It also seems as though the court will have the discretion to cap the laibility at a lower or higher figure than £5,000 or £30,000.

It remains to be seen just how these new rules will operate in practice, but this is a good step forward. Appeals to the Inner House of the Court of Session are expensive and an unsuccessful appellant could face an expenses bill of many tens of thousands of pounds (in addition to their own legal fees). These new rules do not affect the availability of legal aid (or the rules that apply to expenses where an unsuccessful appellant is in receipt of legal aid). However, these rules will help people who are financially ineligible for legal aid, but are still financially unable to risk losing an appeal. Furthermore, legal aid can be difficult to obtain and therefore this provides a potential route for a person whose application for legal aid has been refused (although, it remains to be seen whether the timeframe for making a motion for a “prohibitive expenses order” is flexible enough to deal with situations where someone has applied for, but ultimately been refused, legal aid). It also remains to be seen how the court will deal with an application for a prohibitive expenses order where legal aid has been refused on the basis of the merits of the appeal rather than on financial eligibility (the tests do, at first blush, appear to be different with perhaps a lower threshold applying to the question of merits in a motion for a prohibitive expenses order as opposed to an application for legal aid).

These new rules might see an increase in EIR appeals to the Court of Session (indeed, we might see an appeal be brought – none have ever been brought, at least so far as I’m aware, in the almost 14 years that people have been able to request environmental information in Scotland). People who are unable to financially risk losing an appeal will now be able to know what their liability in expenses will be in advance of expenses mounting up. This could have financial implications for the Scottish Information Commissioner if his office starts to see an increase in litigation and also for Scottish public authorities who may ultimately decide to become involved in appeals brought by requesters against decisions of the Commissioner.

Alistair Sloan

If you would like advice or assistance in respect of requests for environmental information or any other information law matter, you can contact Alistair Sloan on 0141 229 0880 or by E-mail.

Update 28/11/2018 – The Scottish Information Commissioner’s office has advised that there was one appeal brought against one of their decisions relating to a request for environemntal information. The appeal was brought by a public authority and was abandoned by the public authority.

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