Tag Archives: Court Decisions (FOI)

Crossroads: where data protection and freedom of information intersect

The laws relating to freedom of information and those relating to privacy and data protection often come into conflict with one another.  One issue which arises often for those who are responsible for answering freedom of information requests is whether or not to disclose personal data of third parties which is caught up within the information that has been requested.  This is an area that has been the subject of much litigation both under the Scottish and UK FOI laws; indeed, cases have gone from Scotland all the way to the UK Supreme Court (this might be because there are fewer levels of appeal to go through in Scotland and until very recently Scottish litigants did not need the permission of the Court of Session or the Supreme Court to take an appeal there).

One area which is perhaps the most contentious of all is where the personal data in question relations to civil servants.  The generally accepted position has been that in most cases the personal data of junior civil servants will be redacted while personal data relating to senior civil servants is more likley to be disclosed.  This position, however, is one that has never really had any scrutiny from the superior courts; that is until now.  On 6th April the Upper Tribunal (Administrative Appeals Chamber) made its decision in Cox v Information Commissioner and Home Office [2018] UKUT 119 (AAC).  Judge Wikeley records that to the best of his knowledge Cox was “the first occasion on which the Upper Tribunal has had to consider in any depth the issue of the principles governing the disclosure of the names of individual civil servants in response to a request under FOIA.” [32]

In this appeal the Appellant, Mr Cox, is concerned with the development of Government policy and its application in relation to migration from the Horn of Africa.  The Appellant made a request for information to the Home Office pursuant to his right of access to information within the Freedom of Information Act 2000.  His request for information sought details concerning meetings between civil servants from the Home Office and government officials from countries within the region.  In particular, the Appellant sought the dates of the meetings, names of all those who were present at the meetings and also the notes of such meetings.

There were two issues in the appeal, but this blog post only focuses on the first of those issues; that being the disclosure of the names of civil servants.  The Home Office had refused to disclose the names of three civil servants who had formed part of the UK’s delegation to Eritrea in December 2014 (they were referred to as J, L and N during the course of the proceedings before the First-Tier Tribunal).  The Information Commissioner had agreed with the Home Office and found that the Home Office had complied with the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 in withholding the names under section 40(2) of the Act.

The UK and Scottish provisions in respect of personal data are the same (although, in the Scottish Act the exemption can be found within section 38 of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002).  Personal data of third parties is exempt under FOI law where to release the personal data would amount to a breach of the data protection principles.  When third party personal data is involved in an FOI request the sixth condition in Schedule 2 to the Data Protection Act 1998 comes into play.  This condition requires there to be a balancing exercise undertaken between the rights of the data subject and the rights of the person who is seeking disclosure of the personal data.

In South Lanarkshire Council v Scottish Information Commissioner [2013] UKSC 55 (a case which involved the disclosure of pay scales within the Council in connection with matters concerning equal pay), Lady Hale observed that the sixth condition in Schedule 2 required that three discrete questions are asked and answered:

  1. Is the data controller or the third party or parties who whom the data are disclosed pursuing a legitimate interest of interests?
  2. Is the processing involved necessary for the purpose of those interests?
  3. Is the processing unwarranted in the circumstances by reason of prejudice to the rights and freedoms or legitimate interests of the data subject?

The first hurdle for a requester to get across in seeking to have third party personal data, including the names of civil servants, disclosed under FOI laws is that they are pursuing a legitimate interest. It is clear from the authorities that there is no inherent interest in the release of civil servants’ names: “[t]here is no reason why the general transparency values underpinning FOIA should automatically create a legitimate interest in disclosure under the DPA.” [42] (see also Department of Health v Information Commissioner and Lewis [2017] EWCA Civ 374)  What needs to be assessed is “the legitimate interests of the individual requester, and not the more abstract legitimate interests of the public at large”. [43]  If the decision-maker, whether that be the public authority, commissioner or courts/tribunals, is not satisfied that there is no legitimate interest being pursued by the requester, then they do not need to go any further as the sixth condition would not apply (see the comments of Judge Jacobs giving the decision of the Upper Tribunal in Information Commissioner v (1) CF and (2) Nursing and Midwifery Council [2015] UKUT 449 (AAC) at paragraph 19 in particular).

When the personal data exemptions are in play they represent an exception to the general proposition that the FOI process is applicant blind (i.e. that the applicant doesn’t play a part in determining whether information ought to be released or not); other exceptions include, for example, the vexatious provisions and the aggregation provisions within the appropriate limit regulations.  Judge Jacobs, at paragraph 30, in IC v CF & NMC (above) said that it “is impossible to apply paragraph 6(1) without having regard to the identity of the applicant, the interest pursued by the request and the extent to which information is already potentially available to the public.”

Each case will, of course, turn on its own facts.  Many of the factors which go into determining whether third party personal data ought to be released is specific to the facts and context. However, I suggest that we can draw some clear principles from the case law to date:

  1. When determining the legitimate interests part of the test; there is no public benefit legitimate interest – reference must be had to who is making the request and why they are making the request;
  2. The balancing exercise required to be undertaken when applying condition 6 of Schedule 2 is not the same balancing exercise that is completed when undertaking the public interest balancing exercise;
  3. FOI rights do not take precedence over privacy and data protection rights;
  4. When it comes to the personal data of civil servants; there is no hard rule that the personal data (including names) of senior civil servants will always be disclosed and likewise there is no hard rule that the personal data (including names) of junior civil servants will always be redacted; it is a decision that is both fact-specific and context-specific

The decision in Cox is of course one that is not binding on the Scottish Information Commissioner, but it is binding upon the First-Tier Tribunal and the UK Information Commissioner.  It essentially approves of the way in which public authorities and both commissioners have been handling these issues to date and so we’re unlikely to see anything change as to how the tension between FOI laws and the data protection laws is resolved.

The Data Protection Bill will (when it is finally passed and eneacted) amend both the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 to reflect the General Data Protection Regulation; the provisions look a bit unwieldy, but in reality they are unlikely to change very little in terms of day-to-day practice.

Alistair Sloan

If you require advice and assistance on any aspect of freedom of information or data protection and privacy law then you can contact Alistair Sloan on 0141 229 0880; alternatively you can contact him directly be E-mail.  We have a Twitter account dedicated to information law issues , which you are welcome to follow.

The National Security Blanket has been Shrunk

On 2nd January 2018 the Upper Tribunal (Administrative Appeals Chamber) (consisting of Charles J, Lane J and Anne Chafer)  published an important decision [pdf], dated 14th December 2017, on the application of the exemption in section 23 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

The exemption in section 23 relates to information supplied by, or relating to, bodies dealing with security matters.  Subsection (3) provides a list of 15 bodies to which the exemption applies; including the Security Service (MI5), the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), the National Crime Agency (NCA) and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).  The actual exemption is contained in Section 23(1) and provides that:

Information held by a public authority is exempt information if it was directly or indirectly supplied to the public authority by, or relates to, any of the bodies specified in subsection (3).

Background

The decision is worth reading in full, but the essential background to the decision is as follows.  On 21st August 2015 the Royal Air Force carried out a precision air strike in Syria utilising a remotely piloted aircraft (commonly referred to as a ‘drone strike’).  The strike took place in the Syrian city of Raqqa and the target was 21 year-old Reyaad Khan, who was born in Cardiff, and had featured in a ‘recruitment video’ produced by ISIS (also known as IS, Dahesh or ISIL).  The strike killed the intended target along with two other ISIS fighters, one of whom was also British.

On 7th September 2015 the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, made a statement to the House of Commons.  In his statement to the House, Mr. Cameron provided details on the operation which had taken place in August 2015 in Raqqa.  The Upper Tribunal’s written reasons for its decision quote extensively, at paragraph 10, from Mr. Cameron’s statement to the House.  It also quotes an exchange between Mr. Cameron and the then acting leader of the Labour Party, Harriet Harman MP (paragraphs 11 and 12).

In compliance with the United Kingdom’s obligations in terms of Article 51 of the UN Charter, the UK’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations wrote to the President of the Security Council informing the President that the UK had undertaken the 25th August 2015 operation and that this was in “exercise of the inherent right of individual and collective self-defence.”  The Upper Tribunal have quoted further from that letter in paragraph 13 of its decision.

There is much more to the background which can be dealt with in this blog post; however, it is comprehensively set out in the Upper Tribunal’s decision.  It is suffice to say that Freedom of Information requests were made by the appellants to the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) and to the Cabinet Office.  These requests were refused by the public authorities and, in three decisions dated 30 August 2016, the Information Commissioner upheld the decisions of the AGO and the Cabinet Office.  The appellants appealed to the First-Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) and the appeals were transferred to the Upper Tribunal in terms of Rule 19 of The Tribunal Procedure (First-Tier Tribunal) (general regulatory Chamber) Rules 2009 – which allows appeals to the First-Tier Tribunal against decisions of the Information Commissioner’s office, amongst others, to be transferred to and be determined by the Upper Tribunal instead of the First-Tier Tribunal; essentially the appeal ‘leap-frogs’ the First-Tier Tribunal.

Section 23 of FOIA

Section 23 of FOIA is an absolute exemption, which means that it is not necessary for the public authority to consider where the public interest rests between maintaining the exemption and disclosure.  It was designed to ensure that there was no backdoor route to gaining access to information held by the security services under FOIA.  The security services are not public authorities for the purposes of FOIA and this exemption ensures that information which is supplied by, or relates to, one of the security bodies in section 23 cannot be obtained from a public body which is a public authority for the purposes of FOIA.  A similar exemption, but not identical, can be found at Section 31 of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

The Upper Tribunal’s decision

The Tribunal’s starting position seems to have been that FOIA provides a right of access to information rather than documents.  When responding to an FOI request, a public authority does not need to supply a copy of the document which contains the requested information (although, in practice an authority will provide the document – redacted where necessary).  The request can be complied with by extracting the information from the document or other records held by the authority (APPGER v ICO and FCO [2015] UKUT 0377 (AAC)).  This seems to be a key pillar of the Upper Tribunal’s decision in Corderoy and another v The Information Commissioner and others.

The Upper Tribunal has in this case qualified a statement that was made in the decision of the Upper Tribunal in the APPGER case.  In the APPGER case, the Upper Tribunal stated that “…information, in a record supplied to one or more of the section 23 bodies for the purpose of the discharge of their statutory functions, is highly likely to be information which relates to an intelligence or security body and so exempt under section 23.”  The Respondents in the present case appear to have relied upon this position to argue for a very broad interpretation of section 23.  The Appellants however argued that the absolute exemption in section 23 would prevent disclosure under FOISA unless:  (a) the legal analysis to found the view that he policy decision was lawful can be disaggregated and provided in an intelligible form; and (b) any such disaggregated information falls outside the scope of section 23.

The Appellants were interested in the legal advice which underpinned the Government’s policy decision.  They argued that if this information could property be removed from the documents supplied to the section 23 bodies, and that information itself was not provided by, or related to, a section 23 body, then section 23 did not preclude disclosure and the information instead had to be considered under the qualified exemptions in sections 35(2) and 42 of FOIA (relating to the formulation of government policy and legal advice).

The Upper Tribunal eventually concluded that, while the information in question was clearly of interest to the section 23 bodies; Parliament did not intend, when enacting Section 23(1), for the exemption to apply to information simply because it might be of interest to the section 23 bodies.  The information in question in the present case was concerned with, and confined to, the question as to whether the Government’s policy was lawful.

The Upper Tribunal then went on to consider the public interest arguments, deciding that the public interest rested in maintaining the alternative qualified exemptions rather than in disclosure.  The Upper Tribunal held that it was not necessary for the Government’s legal advice to be shared in order to enable a debate on the lawfulness of the Government’s position to take place; indeed, a considerable debate had already taken place on the issue without the information.

Criticism of the Information Commissioner’s Investigations

The Upper Tribunal also took issue with the way in which the Information Commissioner had conducted her investigations into the complaints made by each of the appellants.  The Information Commissioner had proceeded on the basis of assurances given by the AGO and the Cabinet Office that the information was exempt under section 23(1) of FOIA rather then exercise her statutory powers to require the AGO and Cabinet Office to provide her with the information in question for her consideration.

The Upper Tribunal was extremely critical of this approach by the Commissioner.  The Commissioner did modify her position before the Upper Tribunal; however, the Upper Tribunal remained extremely critical.  At paragraph 95 of its decision, the Upper Tribunal stated:

We acknowledge the resource difficulties of the Information Commissioner but we consider that the course adopted here of effectively permitting the other tow Respondents to be the decision-maker on the challenge to their stance of the application of the absolute exemption in section 23 is unfair.

The Upper Tribunal went on to state in paragraph 97 of its decision that:

If the relevant public authority wishes to avoid a consideration of the relevant documents and so information and disaggregation issues, we have not thought of any circumstances in which it could rely on an assurance rather than a certificate given pursuant to s. 23(2) that can be appealed under section 60.

A certificate under section 23(2) is signed by a Minister of the Crown certifying that the information to which the certificate applies was directly or indirectly supplied by, or relates to, any of the bodies specified in section 23(3) is conclusive evidence of that fact.  The conclusiveness of the certificate is, however, subject to section 60 of FOIA which allows the Commissioner or any requester who is affected by the certificate to appeal the certificate to the First-Tier Tribunal.  The Tribunal can, if it decides that the information in question is not covered by section 23(1), quash the certificate.

Such a certificate may not ultimately prevent the First-tier Tribunal from carrying out the exercise that the Upper Tribunal ultimately carried out in this case, but it does prevent the Commissioner from doing so as the Commissioner is bound to rely upon such a certificate as being conclusive evidence of the application of section 23(1).

Comment

This was an important decision of the Upper Tribunal which clarifies the scope of Section 23(1) of FOIA and which also makes it clear how the Commissioner should conduct her investigations where a requester is challenging the application of section 23(1) of FOIA, but where no Minister of the Crown has signed a certificate pursuant to Section 23(2) of FOIA.

The Upper Tribunal has provided for a more defined exemption rather than for the blanket approach that was being taken by the Respondents.  What can be taken from this case is that information which may be of interest to those bodies listed in section 23(3) of FOIA, and thereby relate to them, will not automatically engage the exemption in section 23.

The Upper Tribunal’s comments on the way in which the Information Commissioner conducted her investigations in relation to these complaints are also of note, and indeed of wider importance.  It is clear that the Upper Tribunal expects the independent regulator to be independent (perhaps not an unsurprising conclusion); in this case it appears that she did not act as independently as she should have.  It was not appropriate for the Commissioner to rely on assurances given by the public bodies concerned and she ought to have required that a copy of the disputed information be provided to her for her consideration or a certificate issued pursuant to section 23(2) of FOIA.  While sympathetic to the pressure on resources that the Commissioner was experiencing, this did not provide an excuse to her for failing to properly investigate an area of contention between the requesters and the public authorities (and indeed between the public authorities themselves, who arrived at the same conclusion but for different reasons).

Alistair Sloan

We have experience of appeals against decisions of the UK Information Commissioner to the First-Tier and Upper Tribunals and also of handling appeals against decisions of the Scottish Information Commissioner.  If you would like to discuss a Freedom of Information matter with Alistair Sloan then you can contact him on 0345 450 0123 or send him an E-mail.

Information Law Review of 2017

2018 is now upon us and this is a big year in the field of Information Law, the General Data Protection Regulation will at last become applicable in the United Kingdom.  If you are a data controller or a data processor, your preparations for the GDPR should be well under way; however, if you have not yet started to prepare for these regulations then it is not yet too late.  The lesser known brother of the GDPR also kicks in this year, the Law Enforcement Directive, which governs the processing of personal data by law enforcement agencies.

However, before I get stuck into what is coming this year in the field of Information law, I want to take a moment to look back at some of the things that happened in 2017.  At the tail end of 2017 the High Court in England issued its anticipated judgment in the case of Various Claimants v WM Morrisons Supermarket PLC  [2017] EWHC 3113 (QB)This represented a significant development in the data protection field and opens up a much wider range of circumstances in which data subjects can sue a data controller under Section 13 of the Data Protection Act 1998.

In October 2017, the Irish High Court made a reference to the Court of Justice of the European Union at the request of the Irish Data Protection Commissioner seeking a preliminary ruling on “Privacy Shield”, the successor to the Safe Harbour rules which had previously been held to be unlawful by the European Court.

In September 2017, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights issued a decision concerning the application of the right to a private and family life contained in Article 8 of the European Court of Human Rights to the monitoring of a person’s communications by their employer.

Also in September 2017, the UK Government published its Data Protection Bill which will replace the Data Protection Act 1998, extends GDPR standards to areas not within the competence of the European Union and implements the Law Enforcement Directive, among other things.

Now looking ahead to 2018, it is possible that we might see a decision from the English Court of Appeal in the Morrisons case referred to above, the judge having granted permission to Morrisons to appeal his findings in relation to vicarious liability.  We may also see claims for compensation being made based upon the Morrisons decision.

In Scotland, we will be expecting to see some more progress made by the Scottish Parliament in its consideration of the Children and Young People (Information Sharing) (Scotland) Bill.  I provided written evidence to the Education and Skills Committee on this Bill last year.  The Committee has had some difficulty in completing its Stage 1 consideration of the Bill and the previous deadline of 22 November 2017 for completion of Stage 1 was removed by the Scottish Parliament.

It is also possible that we will see the Scottish Parliament’s Public Audit and Post-Legislative scrutiny Committee begin to undertake a post-legislative inquiry into the operation of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (or announce that such an inquiry will take place in due course).  If such an inquiry does take place, it will be the first time that there will have been a complete review of the Scottish FOI Act and how it is operating.

Staying on the subject of Freedom of Information in Scotland, we are likely to see the outcome of the Scottish Information Commissioner’s formal intervention in respect of the Scottish Government’s compliance with the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.  We are also likley to see an Order being made under Section 5 of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 designating Registered Social Landlords as scottish public authorities with effect from 1st April 2019.

By the end of 2018 we should also hopefully have a much better idea as to what the UK’s relationship with the European Union will be after it leaves, and in particular what impact this will have on data protection and privacy law in Scotland and the rest of the UK.

There will no doubt be a raft of new court decisions in relation to both Privacy/Data Protection and Freedom of Information over the course of the next 12 months and I will attempt to address the most important and unusual decisions here on the Information Law Blog from Inksters Solicitors.

Alistair Sloan

If you would like advice or assistance with Privacy and Data Protection matters (including GDPR preparation) or with UK and Scottish Freedom of Information requests contact Alistair Sloan on 0345 450 0123 or you can E-mail him.

More is less and less is more

On 30th October 2017 the First-Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) promulgated its decision in McGoldrick v The Information Commissioner; the Tribunal’s decision made two points which it is worth considering.  The request for information in question was made to HM Treasure concerning the Mersey Tunnels; the full terms of the request for information are set out in the Tribunal’s decision.

The first point relates to the use of section 12 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 where some of the information that may fall within the scope of the request is likely to be environmental information; and the second is on the duty of a public authority to provide advice and assistance.

On the first issue, the Tribunal (at paragraph 12) states that it

“agrees with the Information Commissioner that the appellant’s request could cover both non-environment and environmental information, for the purposes of regulation 2(1)(c) but that it would defeat the purpose behind section 12 and regulation 12(4)(d) if a public authority were obliged to collate the requested information in order to ascertain what information fell under either FOIA or the EIR. We agree, therefore, that HM Treasury was correct to consider the request under section 12, even though it might include some environmental information.”

The Tribunal considers that it is appropriate for an authority to not separately identify environmental information and deal with that under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 where there is a substantial volume of information which covers both environmental and non-environmental information.  It seems that the Tribunal is of the view that there is no need to issue a refusal notice citing Regulation 12(4)(b) [although the Tribunal refers to Regulation 12(4)(d), but this seems as though it may be a typographical error] where a request is going to exceed the appropriate limit and it is likely that there is going to be environmental information within the ambit of the request.

On the second issue, the Tribunal decided that, on the facts of the present case, that HM Treasure did not comply with its obligation to provide adequate advice and assistance and overturned the Commissioner’s decision that it had.  In this case, HM Treasure told the requester that he might like to consider refining his request by reducing the amount of information requested.  The Commissioner considered that such a suggestion was sufficient in order to discharge the authority’s duty to provide advice and assistance.

At paragraph 18 of the Tribunal’s decision it stated:

“Given the widespread nature of computer-driven searches for information in connection with FOIA requests, it is, we consider, reasonable to expect large, sophisticated organisations, such as HM Treasury, to point out to requesters how the most thorough search is likely to exceed the relevant financial limit under the Regulations made by reference to section 12, and to suggest a reformulation of the request in terms specific to computerised searches. Accordingly, if HM Treasury had asked the appellant to reformulate his request by reference to emails and documents containing both the terms “Mersey tunnel” and “toll”, the appellant may well have reformulated his request.”

The Tribunal appears to be suggesting that a large public authority may have to go a bit further than a smaller authority in order to discharge its duty to provide advice and assistance.  It appears that, in certain cases, it may be necessary for a public authority to not only suggest that a requester reformulate their request but rather to go further and actually suggest ways in which it could be reformulated; especially when computer-driver searches for information are involved.

This certainly does fit with the way in which the legislation has been drafted; Section 12(1) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 does include “so far as it would be reasonable to expect the authority to do so” within its terms.  So, where an authority is issuing a refusal notice under Section 12 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 authorities, especially larger ones, ought to consider whether they are capable of suggesting how a request could be refined, not just that the requester may wish to consider refining it.

Alistair Sloan

We are able to provide advice and assistance in connection with a range of Freedom of Information matters, including appeals against decisions of both the Scottish and UK Information Commissioners.  If you would like to do discuss a Freedom of Information, or any other Information Law, matter with us then you can contact Alistair Sloan on 0345 450 0123.  Alternatively, you can send him an E-mail.