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First-tier Tribunal allows appeal to limited extent over refusal by Information Commissioner’s Office to disclose arrangements for external legal services

An applicant who sought details of the Information Commissioner's agreements for obtaining external legal services has been successful - but only to a limited extent - in an appeal to access this data.

In Edwared williams v ICO (Allowed) [2021] UKFTT 2020_0019 (GRC)  Edward Williams appealed to the First-tier Tribunal (General Regulatory Chamber) Information Rights after the Commissioner refused to disclose the information.

But the tribunal ruled that most of what Mr Edwards wanted should remain secret.

Judge Sophie Buckley, who heard the case with tribunal members Anne Chafer and Andrew Whetnall, said the appellant had appealed against the Commissioner’s decision that the ICO was entitled to rely on section 43 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (commercial interests) to withhold the information.

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Mr. Williams had asked for “all current agreements for provision of legal services by outside bodies such as barristers chambers, law firms etc” and including their rates of pay.

The ICO said the information concerned included both confidential commercial matters and personal data and so should be withheld.

Judge Buckley said the grounds of appeal were that the public interest favoured disclosure because the matter concerned the use of public money and publication of lawyers’ contracts and rates would promote competitive tendering and ensure there was no favouritism or other corruption.

Mr Edwards also pointed to the Crown Commercial Service’s guidance note The Transparency of Suppliers and Government to the Public, which carries a presumption in favour of disclosure for the vast majority of government commercial information.

The tribunal noted that barristers are self-employed practitioners contracted individually rather than by payment to their chambers and that their pay was therefore personal information.

The judge accepted there was a public interest in transparency on spending but said the ICO published the total spend on legal services each year. She found “a clear risk that the ICO’s negotiating position would be adversely affected, and that they would be less likely to be offered favourable rates if the information were disclosed.”

This meant the strong public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighed the public interest in disclosure, the tribunal said.

It ruled that part of the information sought by Mr Edwards could be disclosed but kept the nature of this private until the opportunity for appeals is exhausted.

Mark Smulian

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