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
The Court of Appeal has told the Government three times in 24 hours that it cannot keep evidence secret in civil proceedings. Similar reasoning was applied in three different contexts; the employment tribunal, a case relating to Iranian nuclear proliferation and a claim for damages for foreign torture.
An identically constituted court as in the Al-Rawi and others judgment had already held on the same day that evidence in a high-profile torture compensation claim should not be kept entirely secret.
In two further decisions, the same judges held that the Treasury must give sufficient disclosure to allow a bank accused of involvement in Iranian nuclear proliferation to not just deny but refute the allegations (Bank Mellat v HM Treasury), and that the Home Office must provide the “gist” of material it had wanted to keep secret from an employment tribunal (Home Office v Tariq). The court did not, however, go as far as saying that evidence can never be kept secret in cases involving national security.
All three cases revolve around the controversial “closed material procedure“, which allows certain evidence to be kept from the public and sometimes a defendant, and the use of “special advocates” (SA). As the Court of Appeal said in para 1 of the judgment, these procedures, developed as part of the fight against terrorism, represent “exceptions to the fundamental principle of open justice.” We have posted about the issues surrounding the special advocate system in relation to control orders (read post).
The cases higlight the strong line the courts have taken towards open justice since the AF case in 2009, a criminal matter in which the House of Lords (now the Supreme Court) held that it was a breach of the right to a fair trial under Article 6 to hold someone under a control order without sufficient information about the allegations against him even where disclosure would compromise the country’s national security (read our case comment).
Al Rawi & Ors v Security Service & Ors  EWCA Civ 482 (04 May 2010) – Read judgment
The Court of Appeal has roundly rejected a request by the Government that evidence in a high-profile torture compensation claim should be kept secret from the public. It has also used the opportunity to emphasise that the interests of open justice would be serious compromised if this kind of request were ever granted in a civil case, even in very limited circumstances.
This compensation claim involves six claimants who were detained at various locations, including Guantanamo Bay and Bagram in Afghanistan, alleging various forms of mistreatment.
The judgment is the latest in a series of reverses suffered by the Government in matters involving Binyam Mohamed and others in relation to their alleged torture. In February the Court of Appeal ordered it to release an unredacted version of an email relating to the “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment which Binyam Mohamed received during questioning by American authorities.
In the latest judgment, the Court of Appeal rejected the previous judgment of Mr Justice Silber in the High Court. The issue was whether the judge was right to conclude that it is open to a court, in the absence of statutory authority, to order a closed material procedure for part (or, conceivably, even the whole) of the trial of a civil claim for damages in tort and breach of statutory duty.
The appeal judges concluded that it was not open for a court to order a closed material procedure, stating that:
BJ (Incapacitated Adult) sub nom Salford City Council V BJ (By His Litigation Friend The Official Solicitor)  EWHC 3310 (Fam) – Read judgment
Where there is a deprivation of liberty within the meaning of Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights, regular reviews by the court are not merely desirable but essential.
This case concerned the application of Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights to the ongoing review of the continuing detention of persons lacking capacity. The individual in question was a 23 year old man, BJ. As BJ lacked capacity, it was found that his best interests would be served by his continued residence at a location referred to as “MH”.
As such, the care plan devised by the local authority and approved by Lord Justice Munby (in the original hearing of 16 May 2008), required the deprivation of BJ’s liberty within the meaning of Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Given that BJ was being deprived of his liberty, Article 5 required a review by the court of the lawfulness of his detention at ‘reasonable intervals’. Munby LJ had set out the frequency and nature of any review at the previous hearing and at paragraph 10 of this judgment the LJ again highlighted the importance of regular reviews in such circumstances,
Savage (Respondent) v South Essex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust (Appellant)  EWHC 865 (QB) – Read judgment
The High Court has ruled that a mental health trust was responsible for the death of a patient who threw herself in front of a train. The judgment marks the end of a long and complex case, and a significant shift in the law relating to public authorities’ responsibility to preserve life under the Human Rights Act. The trust must now pay Mrs Savage’s daughter £10,000 in compensation.
Carol Savage committed suicide on 5 July 2004 at age 50. At the time of her death, she was detained at Runwell Hospital under Section 3 of the Mental Health Act 1983. She had suffered from mental illness intermittently for many years.
After Mrs Savage’s death, her daughter Anna made a claim on the basis that the hospital owed her, as a victim of the death, a duty under the Human Rights Act 1998. The basis of her claim was that the hospital had failed in its duty to protect her mother under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to life. She also made a claim in her own right under Article 8 (right to family life).
Mental health patients and the right to life
Before making a decision on the liability of the trust, the House of Lords (now the Supreme Court) was asked to decide a preliminary issue relating to it’s responsibility under Article 2 (read decision). The Trust argued that the reasoning in Osman v United Kingdom (23452/94) (1999) 1 FLR 193 ECHR was not applicable to the care of hospital patients. In Osman, the European Court of Human Rights held that there is a positive obligation for a State to take preventive measures to protect individuals whose life is at risk.
The trust argued that applying Osman to mental health care would conflict with other obligations of medical staff to their patients and encourage them to be too restrictive of patients’ liberty for fear that they might commit suicide.
The House of Lords threw out the Trust’s appeal. They held that Article 2 put health authorities under an overarching obligation to protect the lives of their patients. If members of staff know, or are in a position to know, that a particular patient presented a real and immediate risk of suicide, there as an additional “operational” obligation to do all that could reasonably be expected to prevent such an eventuality.
End of the saga
The case has now finally concluded, with Mr Justice Mackay finding that the trust could and should have done more to protect Mrs Savage. He said “all that was required to give her a real prospect or substantial chance of survival was the imposition of a raised level of observations, which would not have been an unreasonable or unduly onerous step to require of the defendant…”
Lord Neuberger, the Master of the Rolls, provided an interesting discussion on so-called “super injunctions” in a speech on 28 April 2010. He said that “Where justice is carried out in secret, away from public scrutiny, bad habits can develop. Even if they don’t develop, the impression may arise that they have done so.”
Super injunctions came to prominence as a result of the case involving footballer John Terry, who initially used the courts to block publication of details of his extra marital affair, as well as all mention of the case.
The speech will be of particular interest to libel lawyers, as Lord Neuberger is currently chairing a high-profile panel to review super-injunctions which may lead to their demise. The speech provides a useful background to the issue in terms of human rights law, as well as in relation to freedom of speech in the United States (see our recent post on the topic).
Lord Neuberger gave little away, but does strongly emphasise the importance of open justice, which the super injunction has arguably diminished. The following paragraph may worry lawyers and celebrities who hope that the super injunction will survive:
29. But what of the substantive issue? How do we reconcile such injunctions with the principle of open justice? The first thing we could say is, as Mr Justice Tugendhat, the judge in the Terry case, pointed out, where such an issue is raised it requires intense scrutiny by the court. It does so because openness is one of the means by which public confidence in the proper administration of justice is maintained. Where justice is carried out in secret, away from public scrutiny, bad habits can develop. Even if they don’t develop, the impression may arise that they have done so. Neither reality nor suspicion are an acceptable feature of any open society.
Update 2/5/10 – Joshua Rozenberg writes on libel reform in Standpoint: “… this mixture of cherry-picking and window-dressing had been the only libel reform that Straw could have got through before the general election.”
OM (ALGERIA) v SECRETARY OF STATE FOR THE HOME DEPARTMENT  EWHC 65 (Admin) – Read judgment
The claimant’s detention pending deportation was unlawful where (1) the Secretary of State had failed to take account of the guidance on immigration detention, which indicated that the mentally ill were usually unsuitable for detention and (2) the Secretary of State had failed to notify the Claimant of his right of appeal once a Court of Appeal had, in a similar case, determined such a right to exist.
The Claimant, having entered the UK illegally in 1996, had a string of criminal convictions and a Class A drug habit. Although he had claimed asylum in 1999 the whole of his claim was found by the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal (“AIT”) to be a fabrication. He had married and had two young children in the UK. The most significant issue, however, was his diagnosis in 2003 as suffering from schizophrenia.
McFarlane v Relate Avon Ltd  EWCA Civ B1 (29 April 2010) – Read judgment
Gary McFarlane, a Christian relationship counsellor, has lost his application to appeal his Employment Appeal Tribunal decision in the High Court. Mr McFarlane was sacked by a marriage guidance service after he said he would not promote gay sex. He claimed he had been discriminated against on religious grounds.
The case caused a furore as the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey submitted a witness statement stating that cases such of these should be heard by judges with special religious sensitivity. Lord Justice Laws in the High Court has now rubbished that suggestion. He said:
18. Lord Carey’s observations are misplaced. The judges have never, so far as I know, sought to equate the condemnation by some Christians of homosexuality on religious grounds with homophobia, or to regard that position as “disreputable”. Nor have they likened Christians to bigots. They administer the law in accordance with the judicial oath: without fear or favour, affection or ill-will.
19. It is possible that Lord Carey’s mistaken suggestions arise from a misunderstanding on his part as to the meaning attributed by the law to the idea of discrimination. In cases of indirect discrimination (such as are provided for by paragraph 3(1)(b) of the 2003 Regulations, which is centre stage in the present case) the law forbids discriminatory conduct not by reference to the actor’s motives, but by reference to the outcome of his or her acts or omissions. Acts or omissions may obviously have discriminatory effects – outcomes – as between one group or class of persons and another, whether their motivation is for good or ill; and in various contexts the law allows indirect discrimination where (in a carefully controlled legislative setting) it can be shown to have justifiable effects. Accordingly the proposition that if conduct is accepted as discriminatory it thereby falls to be condemned as disreputable or bigoted is a non sequitur. But it is the premise of Lord Carey’s position.
With all of the talk of the Conservative Party’s proposed new Bill of Rights, it is easy to forget that we have had one on the statute books since 1688. This will now be brought into sharp focus through the Parliamentary expenses scandal, where three ex-MPs are planning to use the 322-year old Act to argue that their prosecutions should be dropped as they have Parliamentary privilege.
The 1688 Bill of Rights (passed by Parliament in 1689) established many of the democratic rights which now find form in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and other similar sources, such as the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Some of the language is familiar, such as the provision against “cruel and unusual punishments”, which foreshadows Article 3 of the ECHR.
The intention of the 1688 Act, which is still in force, was to establish rights seen as essential to restricting the power of the monarch, and bolstering the power and independence of Parliament. The Sovereign was restricted, for example, from establishing new courts or act as judge.
The key provision in respect of the three ex-MPs is:
That the Freedome of Speech and Debates or Proceedings in Parlyament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any Court or Place out of Parlyament.
The 1688 act is still in force, and there is no doubt that it protects MPs and peers from legal action over what they say in parliament. But what is meant by ‘proceedings’? Does it cover a claim for parliamentary expenses? The defendants say it does.
And who should decide such a question? The former MPs are expected to argue that leaving it to the courts would interfere with separation of the powers, a fundamental constitutional principle under which the judges do not question the way in which parliament conducts its affairs.
The Bill of Rights is still occasionally cited in court. One notable example was during the “cash for questions” affair in the 1990s. Neil Hamilton, then a member of Parliament, brought an action in libel against The Guardian newspaper. The trial was stopped, as Mr Justice May considered that the prohibition on courts questioning Parliamentary proceedings would prevent The Guardian obtaining a fair trial. This led directly to the drafting of s.13 of the Defamation Act 1996 which allows someone being sued for defamation to waive “the protection of any enactment or rule of law which prevents proceedings in Parliament being impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament.”
In his article, Rozenberg goes on to discuss what he considers to be the comparative case of Les Huckfield, a Member of the European Parliament who was accused of dishonestly obtaining expenses of over £2,500 by deception.
Old and new
Clearly the battle lines are now being drawn in what will be interesting and potentially important litigation from a perspective of constitutional law. It is also an odd coincidence that three ex-MPs may save themselves from prison by citing a 322-year-old bill of rights at the same time that their Parliamentary ex-colleagues are attempting to enact a brand new one.
With apologies, this post originally appeared with the wrong title
The Court of Appeal has ruled on two linked challenges to the entitlement to welfare benefits of prisoners detained in psychiatric hospitals. One claim alleged unlawful discrimination as compared with other psychiatric patients not serving sentences, in breach of Article 14 ECHR, taken together with Article 1 Protocol 1 ECHR. The other claim raised a point of construction of the relevant regulations affecting one category of such prisoners
The discrimination aspect of the case considered two categories of convicted, sentenced prisoners: those transferred to psychiatric hospitals under section 47 of the Mental Health Act 1983, and those subject to hospital and limitation directions under section 45A of the Act. Prisoners in the first category are transferred after sentence, and generally after serving time in prison, while those in the second were subject to a direction at the same time as they are sentenced. Such prisoners were to be contrasted with, on the one hand, convicted prisoners who serve their sentence in prison and, on the other, patients who have been detained under purely civil law powers or under section 37 of the Act (that is, following conviction, but without any sentence having been passed). Continue reading →
The Northern Irish perspective – Monica McWilliams, chief commissioner for Human Rights in Northern Ireland writes in The Guardian: “The Human Rights Act is central to the constitutional DNA of the UK. It underpins the devolution settlements while simultaneously elucidating the common values of the constituent nations. It also provides a necessary platform from which the sense of autonomy that devolution brings can be further built upon.” (see our post on the subject)
The NGO perspective: Qudsi Rasheed, Legal Officer for JUSTICE, the human rights NGO, writes in The Guardian: “The Conservative party’s approach to this issue has been cloak and dagger. The commission of lawyers set up by David Cameron to consider the bill of rights has been extremely secretive and none of its work has been published. Short of vague and often contradictory statements and political rhetoric by various members of the party, there has been very little in the way of concrete proposals and suggestions.”
The Australian perspective: The Australian Newspaper editorial on why the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, was right to reject proposals for an Australian Bill of Rights: “The Rudd government’s decision last week to reject the idea of codifying rights is a recognition that Australia’s robust constitution, its strong parliamentary tradition of lawmaking, its independent judiciary, and its intelligent civic culture are the best protections for citizens. Far from protecting minority rights, statutory codification risked pitting the judiciary against the parliament by, in effect, becoming a third house of parliament.“
A (BY HIS LITIGATION FRIEND THE OFFICIAL SOLICITOR) v INDEPENDENT NEWS & MEDIA LTD & ORS  EWCA Civ 343 – Read judgment
This appeal was bought on behalf of a severely disabled adult (known as “A”), against the order of Hedley J of 19 November 2009 that the media should be granted access to a hearing in the Court of Protection. The Lord Chief Justice has refused the appeal.
The case was unconventional, largely because of A’s own situation. A had been totally blind from birth and suffered from acute learning difficulties associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder, which meant that he was not able to lead an independent life and was dependent on others for his care. Despite this, however, A had taught himself the piano and had gone on to become an extraordinary gifted musician, and was described by the judge as ‘a man of remarkable accomplishment’. Continue reading →
A number of newspapers reported yesterday that the Council of Europe, is to criticise the UK for failing to introduce a total ban on smacking children. The coverage splits along predictable lines, with the Daily Express and The Star both referring to “meddling” bureaucrats telling British parents what to do with their children.
The foreshadowed comments will apparently come in a debate to be held later today on “The smacking ban 30 years on: international debate“, where advocates against the corporal punishment of children will take stock of how far the smacking debate has come since Sweden banned corporal punishment 30 years ago, becoming the first country to forbid all forms of violence against children, including at home.
The Council of Europe, which monitors States’ compliance with the European Convention, have recommended that all states should secure to everyone within their jurisdiction, including children, the right to be protected from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (Article 3 ECHR), the right to liberty and security (Article 5), and the right to a fair trial (Article 6).
The Independent sums up the position in the UK, where smacking in most schools but not at home is banned:
Though we have a partial ban in place and are about to close an eccentric loophole in that law which allows private tutors to whack their pupils (“reasonably”) our right to cuff our own children is still protected. Sir Roger Singleton, the Government’s independent adviser on child safety, recently published a report – Physical Punishment: Improving Consistency and Protection – which essentially recommended that smacking should be banned everywhere except in the home, by parents and those in loco parentis.
Update 30/04/10 – Libby Brooks writing in The Guardian: “Only the Liberal Democrats have committed in their manifesto to incorporating the UN convention into British law, which is probably about as hopeless a daydream as proportional representation. But, in the meantime, we cannot rely on benign self-regulation by parents alone. Smacking is assault, however you dress it up. It brings with it all the guilt, shame and assumptions of weakness and power that come with any attack on another human.“
Frodl v Austria (Application no. 20201/04) 8 April 2010 – Read judgment
The European Court of Human Rights has taken another opportunity to criticise a European state for not allowing a prisoner, in this case convicted of murder, to vote. Prisoners will not be voting in the upcoming UK General Election, which may yet lead to a slew of compensation claims against the Government.
We posted recently on the continuing refusal of the UK Government to comply with the 2005 judgment of Hirst v UK, where the European Court held that the ban on prisoners voting in the UK was a breach of Article 3 of Protocol 1 to the European Convention on Human Rights.
In Frodl v Austria the Court said that any restriction on voting rights must be proportionate to the end pursued, and
“must reflect, or not run counter to, the concern to maintain the integrity and effectiveness of an electoral procedure aimed at identifying the will of the people through universal suffrage. Any departure from the principle of universal suffrage risks undermining the democratic validity of the legislature thus elected and the laws it promulgates.”
The Court went on to find a violation of the European Convention, for the reason that “it is inconceivable… that a prisoner should forfeit his Convention rights merely because of his status as a person detained following conviction“.
The Court added that a prisoner’s right to vote could in some cases be taken away, but only in the limited scenario where a prisoner was detained as a result of the abuse of a public position or a threat to undermine the rule of law or democratic foundations. In other words, there needs to be a “direct link between the facts on which a conviction is based and the sanction of disenfranchisement“.
In the UK, the Government have shown little willingness to enfranchise prisoners and convicts. This may well be because it prefers the risk of thousands of compensation claims, as well as continuing criticism from Europe, to taking the politically unpopular decision of allowing convicted criminals to vote.
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