Litigation relating to information rights can sometimes seem very dry and obscure, entailing lengthy analysis of the merits of public authorities disclosing or withholding information which is highly specialised or obtuse, and of little real interest to the general population. But this case – the case of the “Black Spider Letters” – really is a fascinating one, involving an examination not just of the legislative provisions relating to the disclosure of information, but also a consideration of the existence and extent of constitutional conventions pertaining to the role of the monarchy in government. At the same time, it has the potential to generate such controversy as to make for perfect tabloid fodder. It has been the subject of international news coverage. And it’s not over yet.
It all stems from a request for information made under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (“the Act”) and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (“the Regulations”) by a Guardian journalist, Mr Rob Evans. In April 2005 he wrote to seven Government Departments, and asked for a list of correspondence between Prince Charles and the ministers for those Departments between 1 September 2004 and 1 April 2005, as well as copies of each piece of correspondence. Many of the Departments initially relied on exemptions contained in the Act in order to refuse to confirm or deny whether or not they held such information. Ultimately however, all the Departments admitted that such correspondence did exist, but they refused to disclose it.
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.
Department of Health v IC, Healey and Cecil(EA/2011/0286 & EA/2011/0287) – Read Decision
In a recent post, Panopticon brought you, hot-off-the-press, the Tribunal’s decision in the much-publicised case involving publication, under Freedom of Information Law, of the NHS Risk Register. Somewhat less hot-off-the-press are my observations. This is a very important decision, both for its engagement with the legislative process and for its analysis of the public interest with respect to section 35(1)(a) of Freedom of Information Act 2000 (formulation or development of government policy) – particularly the “chilling effect” argument. At the outset, it is important to be clear about what was being requested and when.
Risk registers in general
The DOH prepared two “risk registers” documenting the risks associated with implementing the “far-reaching and highly controversial” NHS reforms under what was then the Health and Social Care Bill. The Tribunal heard that risk registers are used widely across government for project planning. They provide snapshots (rather than detailed discussions) combining the probability of and outcomes from any given risk associated with the proposed reform; risks are then classified in red, amber or green terms. According to Lord Gus O’Donnell, who gave evidence in support of the DOH’s case, risk registers are the most important tool used across government to formulate and develop policy for risk management in advising ministers. John Healey MP, one of the requesters in this case, said that he was a minister for ten years and was never shown such a register.
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.
Sugar (Deceased) (Represented by Fiona Paveley) (Appellant) v British Broadcasting Corporation (Respondent)  UKSC 4 – Read judgment / press summary
The Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that an internal BBC report into its coverage of the Israeli Palestinian conflict was “information held for the purposes of journalism, art or literature” and therefore need not be released to the public under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Four of the justices were of the view that even if information is held only partly for the purposes of journalism, art or literature, it is outside the scope of the FOIA. Lord Wilson however, was of the opinion that if information is held predominantly for the purposes of journalism, art or literature, it is outside the scope of FOIA and that the Balen Report was held predominantly for those purposes. The BBC will be relieved that the “partly” view prevailed, as the “predominately” test might in practice have brought a lot of internal documents within the scope of the FOIA.
The “Balen Report” was commissioned by the BBC in 2004 by a senior broadcast journalist, Michael Balen. It was commissioned following allegations of bias in the coverage. Mr Sugar, a solicitor, applied to see the report under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The BBC argued that the report was “information held for the purposes of journalism, art or literature” and therefore fell outside of the Act under the terms of section 7 of Schedule 1 to the Act.
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.
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:
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” 
Summary of freedom of information manifesto commitments here and here
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:
This blog is maintained for information purposes only. It is not intended to be a source of legal advice and must not be relied upon as such. Blog posts reflect the views and opinions of their individual authors, not of chambers as a whole.