Tribunal Upholds Decision to Strike Out FOIA Appeal for Disclosure of Social Workers' Personal Data

Citation: [2023] UKFTT 950 (GRC)
Judgment on

Introduction

In the case of S Hussain v The Information Commissioner [2023] UKFTT 950 (GRC), the First-tier Tribunal (General Regulatory Chamber) Information Rights delivered a decision on the striking out of an appeal regarding a Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) request. The appellant, S Hussain, sought disclosure of personal information of social workers employed by Bradford Council. The appeal was struck out on the grounds that it had no reasonable prospects of success. This article critically analyses the Tribunal’s decision, outlining key facts, legal principles applied, and outcomes of the case.

Key Facts

S Hussain requested personal data of registered social workers from Bradford Council. The Council refused to disclose, invoking s40(2) FOIA, which protects personal data where disclosure would contravene data protection principles. After an internal review upheld the refusal, Hussain complained to the Information Commissioner who concurred with the Council’s decision. Hussain’s appeal to the Tribunal argued against the classification of the information as personal data and contended that similar information had previously been made public.

The Tribunal applied several legal principles to reach its decision:

  1. The Definition of Personal Data:

    • Under s3(2) DPA 2018 and Article 5 of the UK GDPR, the requested information (names, registration numbers, employment details) was deemed personal data as it relates to identifiable individuals.
  2. Exemption under s40(2) FOIA:

    • Information is exempt if its disclosure would violate the data protection principles. The Tribunal confirmed this exemption, focusing on whether data processing (disclosure) would be lawful, fair, and transparent.
  3. Legitimate Interest Test under Article 6(1)(f) GDPR:

    • A three-part test to determine legitimacy, necessity, and balance of interests was employed. The Information Commissioner had already determined that while there existed legitimate public interest in council staffing and qualifications, such interests did not necessitate individualized data disclosure.
  4. Magyar Helsinki Bizottság v. Hungary [2016] ECHR 975:

    • This case was referenced by Hussain, claiming Article 10 of the ECHR provided a right to information access. However, the Tribunal followed the Upper Tribunal’s judgment in Moss v Information Commissioner and Cabinet Office [2020] UKUT 242 AAC, which found Magyar’s applicability limited in the UK context and concluded FOIA provides a suitable domestic framework.
  5. Rationality of the Information Commissioner’s Decision:

    • The Tribunal agreed with the Commissioner that less intrusive means (e.g., the professional register) could satisfy the public interest without compromising individual social workers’ personal data.

Outcomes

The Tribunal granted the Information Commissioner’s application to strike out the appeal. It affirmed that the personal data requested was lawfully withheld under s40(2) FOIA, negating the need for the information to be disclosed. The appeal was considered to have no reasonable prospect of success based on the case’s legal merits.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Tribunal in S Hussain v The Information Commissioner reinforced the protective measures offered by s40(2) FOIA, GDPR, and the DPA 2018 against unwarranted disclosure of personal data. It underscored the primacy of lawful, fair, and transparent processing, ruling out the appeal on account of lacking a substantive argument challenging the Commissioner’s decision. The precedent set confirms the stringent application of data protection laws in the context of FOIA requests and the Information Tribunal’s endorsement of the Information Commissioner’s judgments on data protection matters.

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