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Office of Government Commerce v. Information Commissioner

Case number:
[2008] EWHC 737 (Admin), CO/4438/2007
Country:
United Kingdom
Date of decision:
11 April 2008
Court / Arbiter:
High Court, Queen’s Bench Division, reviewable by Court of Appeal ( Appellate )


Decision:

In the absence of a public interest in preserving confidentiality, there is a presumption of public interest in the disclosure of information held by public authorities.


Keywords:
Legislature / Parliament (including committees, individual legislators)
Policy formulation (including draft documents)
Public interest (including public interest override, information of public interest)
RTI law

Case details:

Facts

In 2005, Mark Dziecielewski made a request under the Freedom of Information Act of 2000 (FOI Act) for access to gateway reviews, independent peer reviews overlooked by the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) examining the viability of certain programs or projects, pertaining to a controversial identity card program. The OGC denied his request on two grounds: 1) the information was exempt under Article 33 of the FOI Act because disclosure would prejudice the exercise of the OGC’s functions; and 2) the information was exempt under Article 35 of the FOI Act because the balance of the public interest weighed against disclosure. Dziecielewski then applied for disclosure to the Information Commissioner, who found that neither exemption applied to the gateway reviews and compelled the OGC to disclose the information. Around the same time, Member of Parliament Mark Oaten issued a parliamentary question inquiring the status of the identity card program, and the Ministerial response dismissed the request. Oaten’s complaint was then denied by the OGC on the same two grounds as set out above. Oaten’s appeal to the Information Commissioner likewise obtained the same outcome, compelling OGC to disclose. The OGC appealed both decisions by the Information Commissioner to the Information Tribunal, which consolidated the two appeals and ordered disclosure of certain parts of the requested information.

Decision

The High Court opined on three important issues. First, the Court concluded that the doctrines of parliamentary privilege and separation of powers barred the Court from reviewing the adequacy of the ministerial response to MP Oaten’s parliamentary question (paras. 50-53). However, the Court conceded that MPs are certainly welcome to make requests for disclosure under the FOI Act “outside the framework of a parliamentary question” (para. 52). It is only when requests are made in the form of a parliamentary question, and the ministerial response provides an interpretation as to the applicability of the FOI Act, that a conflict between the legislative and judicial bodies arises (para. 51).

Second, the Court addressed the Section 33 claim of prejudice. In dictum, the Court argued that there is a general presumption that “in the absence of a public interest in preserving confidentiality, there is a public interest in the disclosure of information held by public authorities” (para. 69). Indeed, since parliament in at least some situations dismisses that there is a public interest weighing against non-disclosure, the Court claimed it would be “unreasonable to attribute to parliament an intention to create a presumption of a public interest against disclosure” (emphasis added) (Para. 79).

Third, the Court considered the claim of policy formulation exemption under Section 35, agreeing with the Information Commissioner and Information Tribunal that the Section was clearly engaged (para. 54). However, since the Section provided for a qualified exemption, as opposed to absolute, the Court performed a Section 2(2) public interest test to determine whether public interests in favor of disclosure outweighed the public interests in favor of exemption (para. 60). On the one hand, the OGC argued that “the success of [gateway reviews would] be fundamentally undermined” by disclosure; on the other hand, the ID card scheme was a matter of great national importance and debate (paras. 60-80). Ultimately, the Court agreed with the Information Commissioner’s “find[ing] that the public interest in maintaining the exemption does not outweigh the public interest in disclosure” (para. 90), as “there has always been a possibility that [gateway reviews] would be disclosure under FOIA” and the present gateway review generated particularly compelling national interest (paras. 81-84).

Resources:

Judgment of the High Court.

Decision Notice of the Information Commissioner (Dziecielewski).

Decision Notice of the Information Commissioner (Oaten).