Tag Archives: Scottish EIRs

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.

Scottish Information Commissioner’s 2017/18 Annual Report

Friday 28 September 2018 was International right to Know Day, a day designed to highlight the public’s right to know and to campaign for FOI laws. Scotland has had Freedom of Information laws in place since January 2005 and a similar statutory regime entered into force on the same date for information held by UK public bodies. The Scottish Information Commissioner used International right to Know Day to launch his office’s annual report [pdf].

In 2017/2018 the Commissioner’s office received a total of 507 appeals, up from 425 in 2016/2017 (but not the highest number received in any one year). Of the appeals that were received the vast majority (75%) were classed by the commissioner’s office as coming directly from individuals with the media accounting for 11% and commercial/private enterprises accounting for 3%.

In terms of which public authorities have their responses appealed to the Commissioner; local authorities still make up the largest percentage (although there was a fairly significant decrease in the percentage share of appeals from the previous year). Local authorities are followed the Scottish Government and its agencies and the police.

30% of the appeals made to the Scottish Information Commissioner were deemed to be invalid appeals; that is to say they were appeals that the Commissioner’s office could not investigate. The annual report reveals that among the most common reasons why an appeal was not valid are that the applicant had not made a request for review to the Scottish public authority (an appeal can only be made to the Scottish Commissioner after the Scottish public authority has reviewed its initial decision or failed to carry out a review of its initial decision that has been requested) and that the timescales for making FOI appeals within the Act had not been met. Requesters should remember that they should make requests for review within 40 working days of the date that the authority issued its response or the date that it should have responded where no response has been received. Furthermore, it should be remembered that appeals to the Commissioner should normally be made within 6 months of the date on which the authority responded to the review request or, where no response has been recieved to a request for an internal review, within 6 months of the date that the authority should have responded to the internal review.

Failure to respond appeals, that is an appeal which concerns a failure by an authority to respond to a request and/or request for review, continue to be a problem. In 2017/18 19% of the appeals handled by the Commissioner concerned a failure to respond; this is down slightly from the 20% it was in 2016/17, but is up from the 16% figure in 2015/16. These are fairly clear-cut appeals as an authority has either responded within the statutory timeframe not and they should be appeals that authorities can avoid fairly easily. No authority can be perfect 100% of the time and there will be cases where the inflexibility of the 20 working-day rule, in particular cases where the public interest is finely balanced or where third party consultation is required, will mean that breaches will occur; however, staying in contact with the requester can help to avoid these appeals even where the authority is technically in breach of the law.

Of the decisions made by the Commissioner in response to appeals under section 47 of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002, 65% resulted in a decision which was wholly or partially in favour of the requester.

Some interesting enforcement matters from within the report which are worthy of mention include:

  • Highland Council was issued with an Information Notice when it delayed in providing information to the Commissioner’s Office which was required in order to enable the Commissioner to investigate an appeal made to him by a requester.
  • The Commissioner also highlights that his office considered referring East Dunbartonshire Council to the Court of Session for failing to comply with one of his decisions (but in the end, it would appear that, such a step ultimately proved unnecessary).
  • The Commissioner refers to his high profile level 3 intervention in respect of the Scottish Government’s performance and culture in respect of FOI, which is still ongoing.
  • A less profile level 3 intervention by the Commissioner was the ongoing intervention in Police Scotland, which is now in the monitoring phase after an action plan was agreed between Police Scotland and the Commissioner. There were concerns about searching for and locating information to respond to information requests as well as concerns around record-keeping.
  • Two independent schools (which had become subject to FOI following the last extension of the Act by the Scottish Ministers) were subject to level 4 interventions where they had failed to adopt publication schemes as required by section 23 of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

The Commissioner’s report makes reference to three Court of Session cases in respect of decisions that it had made, one of which Inksters were instructed in by one of the parties. The number of appeals against decisions of the Scottish Information Commissioner remain particularly low (both appeals taken by requesters and Scottish public authorities); whether this is because the Commissioner’s office is doing a good job in terms of interpreting the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 and the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004, or whether it has more to do with the significant costs to be faced by requesters and Scottish Public Authorities who decide to take an appeal to Scotland’s highest civil court is a matter which is very much open for debate.

There is lots of other useful information with the Commissioner’s annual report, but at the risk of this blog post becoming too unwieldy I shall leave it there.

Alistair Sloan

Whether you are a requester or a public authority we can provide you with advice and assistance on Freedom of Information matters. Contact Alistair Sloan on 0141 229 0880 or you can send him an E-mail. You can also follow our dedicated twitter account on information law matters.