Tribunal Sets Boundaries on 'Environmental Information' Definition Under EIR in Shiel v Information Commissioner Case

Citation: [2023] UKFTT 1057 (GRC)
Judgment on

Introduction

In the case of William Shiel v Information Commissioner, a significant decision was reached concerning the interpretation of what constitutes “environmental information” under the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR). This analysis meticulously untangles the legal principles engaged by the First-tier Tribunal, General Regulatory Chamber, and their practical application to the specific fact scenario presented.

Key Facts

William Shiel, as appellant, sought information from the North Sunderland Harbour Commissioners (NSHC), asserting a right under the EIR. The NSHC declined to provide certain information arguing that it was not environmental in nature and thus not subject to EIR. The Information Commissioner sided with the NSHC, leading Shiel to appeal. The primary focus of the case was whether the withheld information related to the governance of the Harbour could be considered “environmental information” under Regulation 2(1)(c) of the EIR.

Several key legal principles underpin the Tribunal’s decision:

Broad Interpretation of Environmental Information

A principle highlighted is that “environmental information” should be interpreted broadly, reflecting the ethos of the Aarhus Convention and EU Directive 2003/4/EC, as recognized in Glawischnig v Bundesminister für Sicherheit und Generationen. However, this breadth has limitations; there must be more than a minimal environmental connection to qualify for disclosure under the EIR.

Information “On” Measures or Activities

The “Henney Test” emerged from Dept for BEIS v IC & Henney, proposing that information is “on” a measure if it is about, relates to, or concerns the measure. A broad context may be considered, including the information’s purpose, importance, usage, and whether access would enhance public engagement in decision-making.

The Application of the “Henney Test”

In scrutinizing the NSHC’s withheld information against the “Henney Test,” the Tribunal found it not to be “on” a measure or activity with a significant environmental impact. Consequently, the information failed to meet the EIR threshold requirement.

Distinction Between Causes and Effects

The Tribunal delineated between the direct operational activities of a statutory authority affecting the environment and the governance mechanisms which enable such operations. The latter, being several steps removed from having an immediate environmental impact, fall outside the scope of “environmental information” as contemplated under EIR.

Outcomes

The Tribunal dismissed the appeal, determining that the withheld information regarding the governance of the Harbour did not qualify as “environmental information” under Regulation 2(1)(c) EIR. This decision draws a significant boundary around what is considered environmental under the EIR, emphasizing the need for a close and direct connection to environmental changes or effects.

Conclusion

The Tribunal’s judgment in William Shiel v Information Commissioner clarifies the demarcation line for what constitutes “environmental information” under the EIR. It restricts this classification to information that has a direct and significant environmental nexus, maintaining a restraint against overly broad interpretations that would indiscriminately encompass all manner of information held by public authorities. This precedent solidifies the understanding of the EIR’s scope within the legal sphere, shaping future information disclosure disputes that revolve around environmental issues.

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