Tribunal rules in favor of transparency over data protection in Cleasby v Information Commissioner.

Citation: [2024] UKFTT 89 (GRC)
Judgment on

Introduction

In the case of Peter Cleasby v The Information Commissioner, the First-tier Tribunal (General Regulatory Chamber on Information Rights) considered an appeal against a decision by the Information Commissioner. The case revolved around the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) and the Data Protection Act 2018 (DPA), specifically concerning the exemption of personal data and information provided in confidence.

Key Facts

Peter Cleasby requested specific information from The Governing Body of the University of Exeter regarding the Community Panel and Resident Liaison Group. The University withheld part of the requested data, citing Section 40(2) (personal data) and Section 41 (confidential information) of the FOIA. Cleasby appealed the Information Commissioner’s decision, which had found in favor of the University’s withholding.

The key points of contention included whether the names of the members representing various community interests and organizations should be disclosed, and whether the disclosure would contravene data protection principles or breach confidentiality obligations.

The Tribunal analyzed the case using the following legal principles:

  1. Personal Data (Section 40 FOIA and DPA 2018): The Tribunal confirmed that the withheld information indeed constituted personal data. It then applied the three-part test derived from Article 6(1)(f) UK GDPR, entailing a legitimate interest assessment, a necessity test, and a fundamental rights and freedoms balance.

  2. Legitimate Interest and Necessity: Disclosure was deemed necessary for the purpose of legitimate interests in transparency and understanding the range of views and interests considered by the University.

  3. Balance of Interests (Data Protection Principles): The Tribunal found that the disclosure was within the reasonable expectations of the data subjects (members of the groups) and that published scrutiny was a foreseeable aspect of their public service roles. The interests of transparency were not overridden by the data subjects’ rights and freedoms.

  4. Information Provided in Confidence (Section 41 FOIA): The Tribunal determined that the information was not imparted under circumstances that imposed an obligation of confidence.

The legal touchstones referenced include the test for ‘necessary’ as defined in South Lanarkshire Council v Scottish Information Commissioner ([2013] 1 WLR 2421), which was cited to reaffirm the proportionality aspect within the principle of necessity.

Outcomes

The Tribunal allowed the appeal, concluding that the University was not entitled to rely on Section 40(2) or Section 41 to withhold the requested information. It required the University to disclose the information within 42 days of the decision, with the notice that failure to comply might be regarded as contempt of the Tribunal’s decision.

Conclusion

The Tribunal’s decision in Peter Cleasby v The Information Commissioner represents a reaffirmation of the principles of transparency and accountability against the competing need to protect personal data and maintain confidentiality. By applying the relevant legal principles, the Tribunal illuminated the conditions under which information should be disclosed under FOIA, striking a balance in favor of the public’s legitimate interest, provided that it does not disproportionately affect the rights or freedoms of data subjects. This case is a benchmark for future decisions involving the tension between open information and privacy rights.

Related Summaries