Tribunal Upholds SYP's Refusal in Williams v Information Commissioner: Law Enforcement and Health/Safety Exemptions Employed

Citation: [2023] UKFTT 898 (GRC)
Judgment on

Introduction

In the case of Edward Williams v The Information Commissioner & Anor ([2023] UKFTT 898 (GRC)), the First-Tier Tribunal (General Regulatory Chamber) was tasked with determining an appeal under section 57 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (“FOIA”). The case centers on the appellant’s request for information relating to a police officer’s disciplinary record from South Yorkshire Police (SYP), which was denied on grounds of exemptions under s31(1)(g) (law enforcement) and s38 (health and safety) of the FOIA. The appellant challenged the Information Commissioner’s decision supporting the SYP’s refusal to disclose the information.

Key Facts

The appellant sought information on complaints and misconduct reports concerning a specific police officer, PC [redacted], in a three-part request. The SYP refused to disclose the information based on exemptions outlined in the FOIA, citing the potential prejudice to law enforcement and dangers to health and safety. The Information Commissioner upheld SYP’s decision, which led to the appellant filing a notice of appeal to the Tribunal. The Tribunal considered whether the exemptions under s31(1)(g) and s38 were correctly applied and weighed against the public interest in disclosure.

Section 31(1)(g) Law Enforcement Exemption

The Tribunal considered whether the SYP’s function to hold misconduct hearings fell within the scope of s31(1)(g) and s31(2)(b) as described in the Police (Conduct) Regulations 2012. The Regulation mandates the investigation of misconduct allegations, qualifying it as a “function of ascertaining whether any person is responsible for any conduct which is improper,” fitting within the broad interpretation of “law enforcement” according to the FOIA (referencing William Thomas Stevenson v The ICO and North Lancashire Teaching Primary Care Trust [2013] UKUT 0181 (AAC)).

Prejudice and Public Interest Test

The Tribunal analyzed whether prejudice to law enforcement functions was likely if the information were disclosed. It adopted the two-tiered threshold of likelihood under s31: that is, whether disclosure “would be likely to” or “would” cause prejudice. The possible prejudice included the chilling effect on future complaints to the police and the potential harm to the investigation’s integrity and effectiveness.

Section 38(1)(a) Health and Safety Exemption

Section 38 concerns endangerment of health or safety due to information disclosure. The Tribunal found that the exemption could be applied if disclosure was likely to endanger the health of any individual, not necessarily a specific individual. In this case, potential harm to individuals associated with the complaints and Operation Linden was identified.

Outcomes

The appeal was dismissed regarding the requested Parts 1 and 2. The Tribunal held that:

  • Both s31(1)(g) and s38 exemptions were applicable.
  • The prejudice to law enforcement capabilities of SYP was a real and substantial concern.
  • Public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighed the interest in disclosing the information.
  • The potential endangerment of individuals’ mental health reinforced the decision to apply s38 exemption.

Regarding Part 3 of the request, the Tribunal acknowledged that the IOPC report was not held by SYP, accepting the adjournment of this aspect of the appeal. This part of the decision is pending further discussions between the parties and potential written confirmation from SYP.

Conclusion

The Tribunal’s systematic examination of the FOIA exemptions in the Edward Williams v The Information Commissioner & Anor case illustrates the cautious approach taken when handling requests for sensitive information. Ensuring law enforcement’s integrity and protecting individuals’ health and safety were pivotal in justifying the exemptions under s31(1)(g) and s38 of the FOIA. The decision underscores the delicate balance between public interest in transparency and the need to safeguard the functionality of public authorities and the welfare of individuals involved. The Tribunal’s ruling provides legal professionals with a clear precedent on applying FOIA exemptions relating to law enforcement and health and safety.

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