Tribunal Upholds Decision to Withhold Vaccine Adverse Reaction Data in FOIA Appeal

Citation: [2024] UKFTT 56 (GRC)
Judgment on

Introduction

In the case of Marco Tullio Suadoni v The Information Commissioner & Anor [2024] UKFTT 56 (GRC), the First-tier Tribunal (General Regulatory Chamber) on Information Rights heard an appeal on the determination of a Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) request. This analytical discussion presents the key topics and legal principles arising from the tribunal’s decision, which focused on the balance between public interest in transparency and the risk of potential harm, such as vaccine hesitancy.

Key Facts

Marco Tullio Suadoni, the Appellant, requested detailed anonymized raw data on COVID-19 vaccine adverse reactions from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). MHRA refused on the grounds of Section 22(1) FOIA, reasoning that the information was intended for future publication. The Internal Review upheld the refusal, and the Appellant then appealed to the Information Commissioner, who agreed with MHRA’s position. The Appellant subsequently appealed to the Tribunal, arguing for the public interest in immediate transparency.

The Tribunal applied several legal principles in reaching their decision:

  1. Section 1 FOIA: Establishes the right to access information held by public authorities, barring specific exemptions.
  2. Section 2(2) FOIA: Determines the balance of public interest in disclosing exempt information.
  3. Section 22(1) FOIA: Exempts from disclosure information intended for future publication, subject to reasonable withholding circumstances and public interest favoring non-disclosure.
  4. Public Interest Test: The balancing act between the public benefit of disclosure against any harm or prejudice likely to arise from disclosure, which according to the case Montague v The Information Commissioner and Department for International Trade: [2022] UKUT 104 (AAC), must be assessed at the date of the original refusal to disclose.
  5. Burden of Proof: Rests on the Appellant to demonstrate that the Information Commissioner’s decision was erroneous or involved an inappropriate exercise of discretion, using the balance of probabilities standard.

The Tribunal considered the arguments, evidence, and witness statements using these legal principles and the specifics of the case, such as the unique context of the global pandemic and suitability of the data format for publication.

Outcomes

The findings concluded that:

  • The MHRA had a clear intention to publish the data in the future, aligning with Section 22(1) FOIA.
  • The public interest favored the maintenance of exemption. The tribunal concurred with the Information Commissioner that withholding raw data until it could be contextualized was in the public interest, particularly due to the risks associated with vaccine hesitancy during a pandemic.
  • The Tribunal did not resolve any factual dispute regarding the HPV vaccine situation in Japan, as it was not within their purview and unnecessary for the appeal determination.

The Tribunal dismissed the appeal on the basis that there was no error in the Information Commissioner’s Decision Notice, supported by the evidence and legal standards applied.

Conclusion

The Tribunal’s decision in Marco Tullio Suadoni v The Information Commissioner & Anor [2024] UKFTT 56 (GRC) illustrates the nuanced application of FOIA exemptions and the public interest test. The decision accentuates the delicate equilibrium between the right to information and the need to mitigate potential public health risks. The ruling serves as an exemplar of the judicial evaluation of competing public interests in the context of information rights. It also reiterates the significance of the timing of the public authority’s decision as the point at which the public interest balancing exercise should be assessed, per Montague v The Information Commissioner and Department for International Trade. Legal professionals within the UK must be sensitive to these considerations when advising on or interacting with FOIA requests and exemptions.

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