Fish Legal v The Information Commissioner, United Utilities, Yorkshire Water and Southern Water (Case C-279/12) – read Opinion of AG Cruz Villalon
In this most recent case concerning access by private individuals to environmental information held by public authorities, the AG grasps the nettlish question of what precisely a public authority is. The issue was a subject of debate because the request for information had been addressed to private companies which manage a public service relating to the environment. The question therefore was whether, even though the companies concerned are private, they may be regarded as “public authorities” for the purposes of the Directive governing access to environmental information (Directive 2003/4).
Clearly the definition of the concept of “public authority” is an issue of importance not just in relation to access to information, but across the board, whether involving EU law or the application of the Human Rights Act 1998 and judicial review in domestic law. Continue reading
Case C-131/12: Google Spain SL & Google Inc. v Agencia Española de Protección de Datos (AEPD) & Mario Costeja González – read Opinion of AG Jääskinen
This reference to the European Court of Justice (CJEU) concerned the application of the 1995 Data Protection Directive to the operation of internet search engines. Apart from demonstrating the many complications thrown up by this convoluted and shortsighted piece of regulation, this case raises the fascinating question of the so-called right to be forgotten, and the issue of whether data subjects can request that some or all search results concerning them are no longer accessible through search engine.
All of these questions are new to the Court. Continue reading
Queen Mary University of London v the Information Commissioner (1) and Robert Courtney (2) First Tier Tribunal EA/2012/0229 read judgment
Rosalind English has recently posted here on incomplete academic work in the climate change field. This appeal is closely related, in that it concerns a university’s claim to hold on to data from a publicly-funded randomised controlled trial pending peer-reviewed publication.
Between 2005 and 2010 Queen Mary ran a trial into the efficacy and safety of the current treatments for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalopathy, namely Adaptive Pacing Therapy , Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and Graded Exercise Therapy. £5m of public money was spent, and the perceived benefits (and some of the detriments) were written up into a major article published in the Lancet in March 2011. The upshot, said this article, was that CBT and GET could be safely added to current medical care with a moderate improvement in outcomes. This recommendation has already fed into an interim review of the NICE guidelines on CFS/ME.
However, the data on deterioration within the trial had not been fully published. You could not see how many patients deteriorated in response to each therapy, just the net deterioration over the whole cohort. Our appellant, Mr Courtney, is evidently a bit sceptical about the results of this trial. As he pointed out, the deterioration data had a 20 point difference, whereas the improvement had only to be modest – an 8 point difference. And, he said, how can patients sensibly form a view on treatment without knowing how much deterioration that specific treatment might cause?
Bancoult v. Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Divisional Court, Richards LJ and Mitting J, 11 June 2013 read judgment
The Divisional Court has now dismissed the claim by Mr Bancoult on behalf of the Chagossian islanders. He had challenged the designation of the waters around the islands as a “no take” Marine Protected Area, i.e. one which could not be fished.
Mr Bancoult said that the decision was flawed (i) by having an improper purpose (it would put paid to the Chagossians’ claims for resettlement); (ii) by inadequate consultation and (iii) by amounting to a breach of an EU obligation to promote the economic and social development of the islands. The Court ruled against all these claims.
The case has, to say the least, quite a back-story. It started with the Chagossians’ eviction from their islands in the Indian Ocean in the late 1960s and early 1970s, on which I have posted here, here, and, in Strasbourg, here. After a judgment from the courts in 2000, the Foreign Office accepted that the original law underlying their departure was unlawful, and agreed to investigate their possible resettlement on some of their islands.
Stephen McIntyre v Information Commissioner (Environmental Information Regulations 2004)  UKFTT 156 (17 May 2013) – read judgment and  UKFTT 51 (7 May 2013) read judgment
These are the latest in a series of freedom of information requests for disclosure of material from the UEA’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU). These requests arose following the ‘climategate’ affair where hacked university emails suggested that individuals within CRU might have attempted to abuse the process of peer review to prevent publication of opposing research papers and evidence. Hence the sensitivity of the data to both requester and CRU, and the passions engendered on these appeals.
Both cases turned on whether disclosure could be denied on the basis of the public interest exception to the default rule that information should be disclosed, in other words the chilling effect on sharing ideas and unpublished research, and the potential distortion of public debate by the disclosure of incomplete material. Continue reading
Bancoult v. Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Divisional Court, Richards LJ and Mitting J, 16-24 April 2013, judgment awaited, but see 25 July 2012, Stanley Burnton LJ for an earlier judgment UPDATED
A quick update at the end of the recent judicial review on 24 April by Mr Bancoult on behalf of the Chagossian islanders, but before judgment. The challenge was to the designation of the waters around their islands as a “no take” Marine Protected Area, i.e. one which could not be fished.
I have posted on this saga before, which started with the Chagossians’ eviction from their islands in the Indian Ocean in the late 1960s and early 1970s, here, here, and, in Strasbourg, here. After a judgment from the courts in 2000, the FCO accepted that the original law underlying their departure was unlawful, and agreed to investigate their possible resettlement on some of their islands.
Animal Defenders International v United Kingdom, April 22 2013 – read judgment
In what was a profoundly sad day for democracy, on 22 April 2013 the European Court of Human Rights found in favour of the UK government in a landmark test case concerning a TV advertisement produced by ADI in 2005, and subsequently banned under the Communications Act 2003.
This announcement by Animal Defenders International (ADI) describes the fate of a film from which the picture above is taken. The verdict was carried through by a majority of one – eight out of seventeen judges dissented. And the reference to “democracy” in ADI’s response to the judgment is not overblown. The general trend of the majority appears to suggest that it is legitimate, in a democracy, for a government to impose a blanket restriction on the exercise of freedom in the name of broadcasting freedom. Such an aim is not one of those listed in Article 10(2). As some of the dissenting judges pointed out,
The ban itself creates the condition it is supposedly trying to avert – out of fear that small organisations could not win a broadcast competition of ideas, it prevents them from competing at all.
….A robust democracy is not helped by well-intentioned paternalism. Continue reading
Yes, says the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, upholding the validity of human gene patents related to breast and ovarian cancer (Association for Molecular Pathology and others v the Patent Office and Myriad Genetics – read judgment) UPDATED
The three judge panel ruled in a 2-1 decision that the biotechnology company Myriad was entitled to its patents on the molecules because each of them represented “a non-naturally occurring composition of matter”. The court also upheld Myriad’s patent on a technique for identifying potential cancer therapies by monitoring effects on cell growth, but denied their claim on assessing cancer risk by comparing DNA sequences because the method is based on “abstract, mental steps” of logic that are not “transformative”.
This fascinating judgment is a model of clarity and fluency in this difficult area. But what does this intellectual property tussle have to do with human rights? Well, there is nothing unfamiliar to human rights lawyers in litigation over the availability of life-saving treatment (patient B, the Herceptin case and the antiretroviral litigation in South Africa are three examples that spring to mind). And much of it begins in the laboratory, with the critical allocation of exclusivity rights. Continue reading
The Chagos Refugees Group in Mauritius v. Foreign and Commonwealth Office, First Tier Tribunal, 4 September 2012, read judgment
and Bancoult v. FCO, 25 July 2012, Stanley Burnton LJ, read judgment
The manoevres by which the Chagossians were evicted from their islands in the Indian Ocean, the late 1960s and early 1970s, so to enable the US to operate an air base on Diego Garcia, do not show the UK Foreign Office in its best light. Indeed, after a severe rebuke from the courts in 2000, the FCO accepted that the original law underlying their departure was unlawful, and agreed to investigate their possible resettlement on some of their islands.
The first of these new cases is an environmental information appeal concerning the next phase of the story – how the FCO decided that it was not feasible to resettle the islanders in 2002-2004.
This decision was taken in the modern way – backed by a feasibility study prepared by consultants supporting the stance which the FCO ultimately were to take. And this case concerns the islanders’ attempts to get documents lying behind and around the taking of this decision.
The late US law Professor Paul Miller reflected recently that Beethoven, Stephen Hawking and Elton John were examples of individuals whom, if they had been tested for serious genetic conditions at the start of their careers, may have been denied employment in the fields in which they later came to excel.
Earlier this month the Association of British Insurers announced the latest extension on the moratorium on the use of genetic test results for insurance purposes. But is this “Concordat” sufficient protection? Genetic technologies are becoming increasingly available and profound questions are arising in relation to life and health insurance and employability as genetic screening becomes cheaper and widespread.
According to the Human Genetics Commission (HGC)
The advent of cheap whole-genome sequencing, and greatly reduced costs for genetic tests in general, will provide the platform for genetic testing to be used for novel and unpredicted purposes. (Report on The Concept of Genetic Discrimination, Aril 2011) Continue reading
Today was one of striking parallels between the USA and the UK in terms of litigation concerned with access to information.
APPGER and security bodies
First, one of The Independent‘s main stories this morning concerned a case brought in the US by the UK’s All Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition (APPGER). Readers will recall that in the UK, APPGER was partially successful before the Upper Tribunal last year; the decision of the First-Tier Tribunal in a second case (the hearing of which concluded in February 2012) is awaited.
BUAV v Information Commissioner and Newcastle University (EA/2010/0064) – read judgment
There is no doubt that freedom of expression plays a starring role in the human rights fairy tale. While she is carried aloft on the soaring rhetoric of citizens’ rights from the newsrooms to protesters’ rallies, the right to information, her shy stepsister, is rarely allowed out. How can that be? Surely we can’t have the one without the other?
The key lies in the Strasbourg Court’s traditionally restrictive interpretation of the relevant part of Article 10 - “the freedom to … to receive and impart information” (10(1)). Although the right to information is explicit (unlike many of the other rights the Court has conjured from the Convention), it does not entitle a citizen a right of access to government-held information about his personal position, nor does it embody an obligation on the government to impart such information to the individual (Leander v Sweden (1987) 9 EHRR 433). This approach is changing, particularly in relation to press applicants. But the culture remains hostile; as the Court says “it is difficult to derive from the Convention a general right of access to administrative data and documents” (Loiseau v. France (dec.), no. 46809/99, ECHR 2003-XII – a self-serving statement if ever there was one, given that it is not the Convention but the Court’s own case law that has been so tight-fisted in the past.
Redaction in Al Rawi
Gradwick v IC and the Cabinet Office (EA/2010/0030) – Read decision
The Panopticon Blog has highlighted an interesting recent case in the General Regulatory Tribunal which may prove to be useful in the many different situations where documents are disclosed in redacted form.
The General Regulatory Tribunal (‘the Tribunal’) regulates information rights, amongst other things. Simply, the Tribunal held that if parts of documents disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 are to be redacted (blacked out), it is not good enough to transcribe a new document with the offending parts removed. This is because, as the Tribunal said:
For much longer?
Whichever party wins today’s General Election, freedom of information in and outside the courts will be a key issue for the incoming government. In light of this, Hugh Tomlinson QC asks whether a “right to freedom of information” is evolving through human rights case law in an interesting piece on the International Form for Responsible Media Blog (Inforrm).
The Government is under increasing pressure to release information which was once uncontroversially secret. As we posted yesterday, freedom of information is a hot topic in the courts at the moment, specifically in the context of the security services and the information they are obliged to disclose to defendants in criminal trials and claimants in civil proceedings. In those scenarios, the right to a fair trial was conditional on a right to see information which goes to the heart of that trial (Article 6 ECHR). However, when divorced from the right to a fair trial, there is as yet no explicit right to information.
Article 10 of the Convention only extends to the right to “hold opinions and to receive and impart information“. This does not necessarily entail a right to access confidential Government information. Hugh Tomlinson says:
This has often been identified as an important weakness in the Convention. However, the position is changing: the Convention is a “living instrument” and recent case law suggests that, in accordance with international trends, the Convention may be evolving its own “right to freedom of information” as a fact of the right to freedom of expression in Article 10 of the Convention.
We posted recently on the the robust freedom of expression enjoyed by those living in the United States, as compared to the arguably less robust freedoms in the UK under Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998. Freedom of expression has gone hand in hand in the United States with superior access to government information. The US Freedom of Information Act was passed by Lyndon Johnson in 1966. It is only with the Freedom of Information Act 2000, sister-legislation to the Human Rights Act, that the UK has begun to catch up. The development of a right to freedom of information would close that gap further. As Tomlinson argues:
… the Court of Human Rights has recognised that there can be a right to access to official information. In some cases this has been done by reference to Article 8 of the Convention… Most recently, in the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union case (Társaság a Szabadságjogokért v. Hungary, Judgment of 14 April 2009) the applicant had been refused access to a constitutional complaint made by an MP. The Court said that “the law cannot allow arbitrary restrictions which may become a form of indirect censorship should the authorities create obstacles to the gathering of information” 
Google have announced the launch of a new Government Requests tool, which according to the Official Google Blog aims to “give people information about the requests for user data or content removal we receive from government agencies around the world.”
According to the tool, the UK currently ranks number 2 in Europe for information removal requests, behind Germany, and 3rd in the world for data requests, behind the US and Brazil.
It appears that the internet search company, whose unofficial corporate motto is “Don’t be Evil“, is attempting to make up for recent public controversies over censorship in countries where rights to freedom of information and expression are lacking. Google has had a particularly rocky relationship with China, who insisted that certain sites were blocked from Google search. After public pressure and a number of public confrontations, Google have recently moved operations to Hong Kong and shut down the search service completely.
Yesterday’s announcement begins by quoting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is similar to the European Convention on Human Rights. It says: