Tribunal Upholds Police's Right to Withhold Info in FOIA Appeal on Speed Camera Ticket Cancellations

Citation: [2024] UKFTT 88 (GRC)
Judgment on

Introduction

In the case of Gary Carnell v The Information Commissioner, the UK First-tier Tribunal (General Regulatory Chamber) on Information Rights delivered a decision on an appeal against the Information Commissioner’s holding that the Chief Constable of Dorset Police could rely on certain exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) to withhold information. This case touches upon key legal principles related to the FOIA, particularly the exemptions pertaining to law enforcement under section 31 and balances that against the public interest in disclosure.

Key Facts

The appellant, Gary Carnell, contested a decision by the Chief Constable of Dorset Police to withhold information regarding the reasons for the cancellation of specific speeding tickets, issued by average speed cameras on the A338. Carnell, who had himself received a speeding ticket, requested information on the number of speeding tickets overturned and the reasons for such cancellations. The police provided partial information, refusing to disclose the reasons for certain cancellations, invoking section 31(1)(a) (prevention and detection of crime) exemption of the FOIA. On review, the Information Commissioner supported the force’s decision, leading Carnell to appeal to the Tribunal.

Section 31 FOIA – Law Enforcement Exemptions

The Tribunal had to consider whether the release of the disputed information would or would be likely to prejudice:

  • The prevention of crime
  • The apprehension or prosecution of offenders
  • The administration of justice

This exemption is prejudice-based and requires a causative link between potential disclosure and the prejudice. The public authority (police in this case) must demonstrate that the prejudice is real, actual, or of substance and that there is more than a hypothetical or remote possibility of the prejudice occurring.

Public Interest Test

A qualified exemption, like section 31, is subject to the public interest test. This means that even if an exemption is engaged, the information must still be released if the public interest in doing so outweighs the public interest in maintaining the exemption. Key in this analysis is the balance between promoting the prevention of crime against the general public interest in transparency and accountability.

The Tribunal had to assess whether the public interest in withholding the reasons for ticket cancellations (on the basis that their release could encourage drivers to speed, or provide ways to avoid enforcement) outweighed the public interest in their disclosure.

Outcomes

The Tribunal permitted partial disclosure; they did not find a causative link between disclosure and prejudice in categories 1, 2, 4, and 6, thus concluding that the exemption under section 31 was not engaged for these categories. However, they agreed that the exemption was engaged for reasons in categories 3 and 5, finding a real and significant risk that disclosure could prejudice the prevention of crime. Ultimately, the Tribunal held that the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighed the public interest in disclosure for these categories.

Conclusion

In analyzing Gary Carnell v The Information Commissioner, we find the application of legal principles of the FOIA in relation to the exemptions concerning law enforcement. The Tribunal conducted a comprehensive review of the withheld information, testing the causative link between the potential for prejudice and the actual disclosure of each category of information. They underscored the necessity of applying the public interest test, demonstrating that only when the risk of prejudice significantly supersedes the value of public disclosure can the exemption be maintained. This decision reiterates the delicate balance between the public’s right to information and the importance of maintaining the efficacy of law enforcement operations in the context of FOIA requests.

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