E.ON UK Plc v The Information Commissioner and Fish Legal  UKUT 132 (AAC) is an appeal to the Upper Tribunal (Administrative Appeals Chamber) concerning an issue that doesn’t come up very often in information rights litigation: the Information Commissioner’s power to issue an Information Notice under section 51 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (“FOIA”).
The background to this appeal is a little convoluted, but of importance to understanding the issues and the decision of the Upper Tribunal. The solicitor of Fish Legal made a request for information to E.ON UK Plc seeking information from it. The information sought was environmental information and so the request fell to be dealt with under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (“EIRs”). E.ON UK Plc disputed that it was not a public authority and so did not issue a substantive response to the request. It became clear during the Commissioner’s involvement that the position of E.ON would be that, if it were a public authority, it did not hold the information.
As there was a dispute as to whether E.ON is a public authority, the Commissioner determined that she needed to resolve that issue first. If E.ON is not a public authority, then she had no jurisdiction to determine whether it held the information in question. After some exchange of correspondence between the Commissioner’s case officer and E.ON, an information notice was served on E.ON. The purpose of this Notice, we learn from the decision of the Upper Tribunal, was to assist the Commissioner in determining whether E.ON UK PLC is a public authority for the purposes of the EIRs.
E.ON appealed to the First-Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) against the information notice. It did so on two grounds: firstly, the decision to issue the information notice was unlawful because, as E.ON did not hold the requested information, it was pointless, disproportionate and academic. Secondly, the information requested in the notice was wholly or mainly in the public domain and so it was unlawful to issue an information notice to require E.ON to provide the information.
The First-Tier Tribunal heard argument and issued what it described as a decision on a preliminary issue, inviting written submissions from the parties as to how the remainder of the appeal should progress. E.ON appealed to the Upper Tribunal and its grounds of appeal are set out by the Upper Tribunal in paragraph 4 of its decision.
What is of most interest in this appeal was the position adopted by E.ON as to the Commissioner’s powers to determine whether the information was held or not. E.ON argued that the Commissioner could consider whether a purported public authority held the information requested, before deciding whether it was reasonable and proportionate to issue an information notice seeking information to assist the Commissioner in deciding whether the purported authority is, in fact, a public authority. E.ON argued, essentially, that where a purported authority did not hold the information it was unlawful, disproportionate and unreasonable for the Commissioner to issue an Information Notice requiring a body to provide her with information to assist her in determining whether the purported authority was, in fact a public authority.
This argument was, ultimately, given short shrift by Upper Tribunal Judge Markus QC. The Upper Tribunal Judge considered that this “position would lead the Commissioner to a dead end”  as “[t]here is no statutory provision which could accommodate the outcome for which [Counsel for E.ON] contended, that being a decision by the Commissioner not to address the public authority question because there was no point in doing so.”  The outcome of the position advanced by E.ON before the Upper Tribunal would have simultaneously meant that the Commissioner could not have issued a decision notice under section 50 of FOIA that no information was held, because there was no decision that she had jurisdiction; she could not issue a decision on whether she had jurisdiction because it was pointless, and in any event she lacked the information she required to do so and she could not have refused a to make a decision under section 50 because none of the circumstances in section 50(2) of FOIA applied.
Upper Tribunal Markus QC remarks, paragraph 49 of her decision, that what the First-Tier Tribunal decided at paragraph 24 of its own decision was not that it was unable to decide any matter not determined by the Commissioner, but rather that the question whether the information requested by the applicant was held by the authority was irrelevant in an appeal against an information notice which was directed at establishing whether the Commissioner had jurisdiction. The question as to whether the information was held would be decided, if at all, if the Commissioner had jurisdiction to do so.
E.ON also tried to argue that the section 50 application by the applicant should be treated as being frivolous or vexatious by the Commissioner (thus giving her a reason under section 50(2) of FOIA to refuse to issue a decision notice). This, again, was also based upon E.ON’s position that it did not hold the information. E.ON seemed to be suggesting that it was frivolous or vexatious to press for the Commissioner to determine whether she had jurisdiction when the purported authority had demonstrated that it did not hold the information. The Upper Tribunal disagreed stating that “[t]here is nothing in this case which gets close to meeting the high standard set by vexatiousness”  (with reference to the principles set out in the Upper Tribunal and Court of Appeal in Dransfield v Information Commissioner and Devon CC).
What appears to have become lost in these appeal proceedings is that this is an appeal against an information notice and not an appeal against a decision notice. The Tribunal was not concerned with the substantive issue (whether or not E.ON had complied with its obligations under the EIRs, if it has any such obligation at all). E.ON, in this appeal, were getting ahead of themselves; or as the Commissioner reportedly put it “they were putting the cart before the horse”. The Commissioner had not made any decision on the issue (that would not stop the Tribunal considering it though if it were an appeal against a decision notice issued under section 50) as she had been unable to determine the preliminary issue of jurisdiction. The purpose of the Information Notice was to enable her to gather sufficient information to determine that issue.
The Commissioner simply does not, and this has been clear for some considerable time, have the power to determine a substantive issue (such as whether information is held) if she does not have jurisdiction. Where there is doubt about her jurisdiction, that matter has to be resolved by the Commissioner first. If the Commissioner is satisfied of her jurisdiction she will go on to consider the substantive issue (and the two matters will be dealt with in one decision notice dealing first with jurisdiction and then the substantive issue); if she determines that she has no jurisdiction she will issue a decision to that effect which can then be appealed in the normal way.
It remains to be seen whether the Commissioner’s Information Notice will survive; the First-Tier Tribunal has yet to consider all of the matters set out in the initial appeal by E.ON. Now that the Upper Tribunal has disposed of this appeal, the First-Tier Tribunal will now need to hear and determine the rest of the appeal.
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