Tribunal Upholds Decision on Access to Environmental Information Under EIR and FOIA

Citation: [2024] UKFTT 9 (GRC)
Judgment on

Introduction

In the case of Hugh Craddock v The Information Commissioner, the First-tier Tribunal examined the tension between the rights to access environmental information and the obligations of public authorities under both the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR) and the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). A meticulous assessment of the regulatory provisions was undertaken to determine whether the information requested was indeed “publicly available” and “easily accessible” to the appellant.

Key Facts

Hugh Craddock, acting in his capacity as a voluntary researcher for the British Horse Society, sought access to digitized tithe maps held by Kent County Council. The Council and subsequently the Information Commissioner maintained that the information was accessible to the public at the Council’s Searchroom and thus exempt from disclosure under Regulation 6(1)(b) EIR. Craddock appealed against this decision, arguing that the Council’s requirement to view the maps in person did not constitute “publicly available” and “easily accessible” information and that the proposed charge for digital copies was unreasonable under EIR and FOIA.

Access to Environmental Information

The Tribunal considered both EIR and the Directive 2003/4/CE, from which EIR was derived. It deliberated upon the meaning of “publicly available” and “easily accessible” within the context of Regulation 6(1)(b) EIR. The central contention was whether information, to be considered publicly available, needed to be so in a manner that included publication on a website, in a reference book, or as part of a publication scheme, and whether the term “easily accessible” extended to being able to capture and use the information outside of the viewing premises.

Relationship between EIR and FOIA

The Tribunal elucidated the interplay between EIR and FOIA. The issue was whether environmental information that is not required to be disclosed under EIR due to an exception should then be disclosed under FOIA, considering the public interest test that qualifies the exemption from disclosure under section 39 FOIA.

Exemption under FOIA

The Tribunal also analyzed section 21 FOIA, which exempts from disclosure information that is reasonably accessible to the applicant by other means than under section 1 FOIA, even if this is on a payment basis.

Case Law Reference

The decisions referenced within this determination include Morgan v Hinton Organics (Wessex) Limited (2009) concerning interpretation of the Convention, Office of Communications v Information Commissioner (EA/2006/0078) regarding the interpretation of “easily accessible,” and Rhondda Cynon Taff CBC v IC (IT, 5 December 2007) on the relationship between EIR and FOIA.

Outcomes

The Tribunal determined that the information held by Kent County Council was indeed both “publicly available” and “easily accessible,” hence endorsing the applicability of Regulation 6(1)(b) EIR to refuse the request. It further found that the information was exempt from disclosure under FOIA pursuant to section 21, as it was reasonably accessible by other means, notwithstanding the fact that the information was not disseminated in the appellant’s preferred format or made available for download via a public telecommunications network.

Conclusion

The First-tier Tribunal in Hugh Craddock v The Information Commissioner upheld the decision not to disclose the requested information based on the Regulation 6(1)(b) EIR exemption. The case underlines the intricate balance between an individual’s right to access environmental information and the sustainability of public resources in handling such requests. Significant emphasis was placed on the interpretation of the EIR’s terminology and the breadth of the exclusion from the obligation to disclose information aimed at ensuring that public authorities are not unduly burdened. The judgment exemplifies the Tribunal’s analysis in the interpretation of EU-derived UK law and the interplay between different statutory instruments governing information rights.

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