Prince’s correspondence in public eye

Posted: 21st September 2012

ICOThe Upper Tribunal has allowed appeals by a national newspaper journalist against decisions of the Information Commissioner upholding refusals by seven government departments to grant his freedom of information requests in relation to correspondence between Prince Charles and ministers.

The tribunal upheld the contentions of a Guardian journalist that the Commissioner applied the wrong principles, gave insufficient weight to the public interest in disclosure and gave too much weight to public interest factors in favour of non‐disclosure.

The tribunal stressed that its ruling does not entitle the journalist to disclosure of purely social or personal correspondence passing between Prince Charles and government ministers; nor does it entitle him to see correspondence that falls under the established constitutional convention that the heir to the throne is to be instructed in the business of government.

The decision relates to ‘advocacy correspondence’ between Prince Charles and ministers in which he seeks to advance the work of charities or to promote particular views. ‘In the absence of any … established constitutional role, [Prince Charles] has chosen a role of seeking to make a difference – not as king, but as Prince of Wales,’ the tribunal observed.

The tribunal said that the ‘important and weighty considerations in favour of disclosure’ included the promotion of good governance through accountability and transparency and the public interest in open debate as regards the extent and nature of interaction between government and the royal family and the constitutional role of the monarchy.

The tribunal also noted that, when seeking to promote a charity or a particular view on policy, Prince Charles has an ability to use privileged access to ministers and correspondence from him is likely to be brought swiftly to the attention of ministers.

The tribunal said, ‘Those who seek to influence government policy must understand that the public has a legitimate interest in knowing what they have been doing and what government has been doing in response and thus being in a position to hold government to account. That public interest is, in our view, a very strong one, and in relation to the activities of charities established or supported by Prince Charles it is particularly strong.’

Despite concerns that disclosure would have a ‘chilling effect on frankness’, the tribunal said that there was good reason to think that Prince Charles will not, as a result of his correspondence being disclosed, cease to make points to the Government that in his view need to be made.