Roberts v Information Commissioner: Balancing Public Interest and Confidentiality in Environmental Information Requests

Citation: [2024] UKFTT 23 (GRC)
Judgment on

Introduction

In the case of Mike Roberts v Information Commissioner & Anor [2024] UKFTT 23 (GRC), the First-tier Tribunal addressed a series of legal principles relating to requests for environmental information. The Appellant, Mike Roberts, ran an aviation company and contested the withholding of certain information by the Stratford-on-Avon District Council relating to the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) about Wellesbourne Airfield. This case pivots on multiple exceptions under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (“EIR”), balancing public interest against confidentiality and commercial sensitivities.

Key Facts

Mike Roberts filed an appeal against the Information Commissioner’s decision, which upheld the Council’s use of EIR exceptions to withhold requested information. The Council had entered into an MoU with Littler Investments Limited (LIL) concerning the development of the airfield. The proceedings were held via videoconference, with pertinent discussions focusing on withheld documents under several EIR regulations. The Tribunal considered the public interest in disclosing the information against the potential damage to confidentiality and commercial interests.

The Tribunal applied the following legal principles under the EIR:

  1. Regulation 12(4)(d) - Material in the Course of Completion: The Tribunal found this class-based exception automatically engaged for draft materials and negotiations related to the MoU. The public interest in maintaining this exception was found to outweigh the interest in disclosure to preserve the Council’s negotiating abilities.

  2. Regulation 12(5)(d) - Confidentiality of Proceedings: While initially applied to Cabinet papers, the Tribunal concluded that these papers were outside the scope of the request as they did not constitute communications between the Council and LIL directly concerning the MoU.

  3. Regulation 12(5)(e) - Confidentiality of Commercial Information: Applied to breakdowns of third party legal costs. The Tribunal found that such costs had the necessary quality of confidence and disclosure would negatively impact legitimate economic interests.

  4. Regulation 12(5)(f) - Interests of the Person Who Provided the Information: The Tribunal found that disclosure of correspondence from LIL’s solicitors would conflict with their expected confidentiality, negatively affecting both the solicitors’ and LIL’s interests.

The presumption in favor of disclosure, a core component of the EIR, was considered alongside the public interest in transparency. Ultimately, the Tribunal deemed the protection of confidentiality and ongoing negotiations of higher public interest.

Outcomes

The Tribunal dismissed the appeal, concluding:

  • The engagement of exception 12(4)(d) for draft materials and related negotiations was proper.
  • The Cabinet papers and related information were outside the scope of the request and did not warrant application of exception 12(5)(d).
  • The engagement of exception 12(5)(e) for the withheld breakdown of legal costs was justified.
  • The engagement of exception 12(5)(f) for the solicitors’ correspondence, protected under confidentiality, was legitimate.
  • The public interest in non-disclosure of the withheld information was greater than that in disclosure in all instances.

Conclusion

The Tribunal’s decision in Roberts v Information Commissioner & Anor reinforces adherence to EIR’s intricate balance between the public interest in environmental information disclosure and the protection of confidential, commercial, and individual interests. The judgment highlights the Tribunal’s careful consideration of the public interest balance, particularly in the context of ongoing negotiations, legal proceedings, and the broader implications for future Council engagements with third parties. Legal professionals should be cognizant of the principles applied in this case, particularly regarding the scope of requests and the robust application of EIR exceptions in the context of environmental information.

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