Court records exempted from FOI

Posted: 10th June 2016

In an important decision, a tribunal has ruled that the exemption of court documents from the disclosure requirements of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 extends to statistical records which do not identify the parties to litigation.

Royal Courts of JusticeA member of the public (the requester) had asked the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) for information concerning a type of family litigation at a county court. The request was confined to lists of numbers, relating to how many such cases were dealt with in particular ways and how many of them involved a named firm of solicitors.

In refusing the request, the MoJ pointed to Section 32(1)(c) of the Act, which provides an absolute, class-based, exemption for any document created by a court, or a member of a court’s administrative staff, for the purposes of proceedings in a particular cause or matter. The requester’s challenge to that refusal was later rejected by the Information Commissioner and the First-tier Tribunal.

In ruling on the requester’s appeal against the latter decision, the Upper Tribunal (UT) was superficially attracted by his arguments that disclosure of such purely numerical information would cause no harm to anyone and could not lead to the identification of those involved in family proceedings.

However, in dismissing his appeal, the UT noted that Parliament’s intention was not to shroud the doings of the courts in secrecy but to ensure that they maintain control over disclosure of their own records. The statistical material sought could only be retrieved by interrogating database records of individual cases and, in those circumstances, the exemption applied.