Tag Archives: Upper Tribunal (FOI)

Cart before Horse

E.ON UK Plc v The Information Commissioner and Fish Legal [2019] 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” [47] 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.” [47] 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” [61] (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.

Alistair Sloan

If you require advice and assistance with a Freedom of Information matter, or any other information law issue, contact our team on 0141 229 0880 or E-mail info@inksters.com.

Personal data and FOI: the conflict continues

The interaction between freedom of information and data protection laws is one which often results in conflict. On the one hand there is a legislative scheme that operates to promote transparency, while on the other there is a legislative scheme that operates to protect personal data. FOI law essentially provides that information should be released unless there is a good reason not to; while data protection law says that personal data should not be processed unless there is a good reason to. Both have their complexities and those brief explanations do not adequately encapsulate them.

The decision of the Upper Tribunal in Information Commissioner v Halpin [2019] UKUT 29 (AAC) is an example of where the First-Tier Tribunal got it badly wrong when dealing with the legitimate interests ground for processing under the Data Protection Act 1998. The Respondent in this appeal, Mr. Halpin, had requested information from Devon Partnership NHS Trust concerning the training that two named social workers had undergone in respect of the Care Act 2014. When deciding whether to release personal data under FOI law there is essentially a three staged test which must be satisfied before the personal data can be disclosed; this test was set out clearly by the Supreme Court in South Lanarkshire Council v Scottish Information Commissioner.

Firstly, is a legitimate interest or interests being pursued by the controller, third party or parties to whim the personal data is to be disclosed? Secondly, if a legitimate interest has been identified, is the processing (by way of disclosure under FOI law) necessary for the purposes of those interests? Finally, if there is a legitimate interest and the processing is necessary for that legitimate interest, then the processing cannot be unwarranted by reason of prejudice to the rights and freedoms or legitimate interests of the data subject.

The first ground of appeal for which permission was granted was in respect of the FTT’s treatment of the effect of disclosure of the information to the world at large; in particular that the FTT had not deal with this matter in substance. This is an issue that needs to be carefully considered: disclosure under FOI is not simply a disclosure to the individual requester; it is a disclosure to the whole world. This is an important factor in determining the necessity of the processing in pursuance of the legitimate interest concerned. It is also important in considering whether the processing (by releasing the information under FOI) is unwarranted.

Once the information is disclosed under FOI law it is disclosed in circumstances where the public authority loses control of the information concerned; there is no duty of confidentiality owed. Therefore, there is nothing that can be done in order to prevent further dissemination of the information.

Upper Tribunal Judge Markus QC states, at paragraph 20, that Mr Halpin’s lack of motivation to publicise the information is irrelevant to the question of assessing the potential impact of disclosure to the world at large. The motivation of the requester is only relevant to the first of the three stages of the test set out in South Lanarkshire Council v Scottish Information Commissioner (whether a legitimate interest exist); it is not relevant to the question of necessity or the final question of balancing the legitimate interests against the rights, freedoms and legitimate interests of the data subject.

Public authorities, and those advising them, should therefore ensure that, when considering the release of personal data in response to a FOI request, they do not become focused on the individual requester; it is essential to consider the wider world when undertaking this assessment. The motivations of the requester might well be wholly benign, but there are others whose motivation may not be so benign and will utilise the information for other purposes. Requesters should also bear this in mind; an individual requester might have a perfectly legitimate interest in the personal data and the necessity test might very well be met in their individual case; that is not enough. Due consideration has to be given to the wider impact of releasing information to the world; this is why consideration has to be given to whether the personal data can be obtained in another way as part of the necessity test (although, the existence of other means of obtaining personal data, other than by way of a FOI request, will not necessarily be determinative of the issue).

Alistair Sloan

We are able to provide advice and assistance to public authorities and requesters in connection with matters concerning Freedom of Information laws; if you would like advice and assistance in connection with these matters, or any other information law matter, please contact Alistair Sloan on 0141 299 0880 or by E-mail. You can also follow our dedicated Information Law Twitter account.