ON SEPTEMBER 18, 2012 the Upper Tribunal allowed an appeal, reversing decisions of the Information Commissioner relating to the release of “advocacy correspondence” between Prince Charles in his capacity as Heir to the Throne, and seven government departments. The information was originally requested by Guardian journalist Rob Evans and related to a time period between 2004 and 2005. In a piece written by Evans on October 12, 2012 in the Guardian it was reported that the “advocacy correspondence” where Prince Charles allegedly argued for changes in government policy in line with his personal viewpoint had become known as the “black spider memos” in reference to the Prince’s style of handwriting. The information requests have occupied the tribunals’ service for close to four years.
The decision in Evans v Information Commissioner  UKUT 313 (AAC) is something of a novelty in several respects. First, this is likely to be one of the last decisions of its kind because as of January 19, 2011 communications between public authorities and the Heir to the Throne are now the subject of an absolute exemption under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 due to an amendment made by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. Secondly, the decision of the Upper Tribunal created the unusual situation whereby a judicial body had to adjudicate on the scope of several constitutional conventions as they related to the Heir to the Throne. Thirdly, it presents an opportunity to begin debating the proper conception of the public interest in knowing information about the activities of the Heir to the Throne in relation to his preparation for Kingship, and his role in public life generally.
This decision is not to be confused with other the recent FOI decision concerning Prince Charles in his capacity as head of the Duchy of Cornwall. On August 21, 2012 The Information Commissioner decided that information relating to Prince Charles’ legislative veto in relation to the Duchy of Cornwall was not exempt from disclosure under section 42(1) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which relates to “legal professional privilege”.
In view of this, this blog post has several aims. I begin by explaining the use of freedom of information law in the context of the case. In the next section I discuss the constitutional position of the Prince of Wales as the Heir to the Throne. Thereafter, I will consider the Upper Tribunal’s discussion of the scope of the relevant constitutional conventions. Finally, I will scrutinise the different consideration given to the concept of the “public interest” by the Upper Tribunal and Parliament in the 2010 Act.
Exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act 2000
There are two types of exemption from the general right of access to information held by public authorities in the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The first is the “absolute exemption” which prevents to the disclosure of the information under any circumstances. Absolute exemptions historically included communications with the Sovereign, and since January 19, 2011 such an absolute exemption has also applied communications with the Heir to the Throne by virtue of section 37(1). The second type of exemption is a “qualified exemption”. Such an exemption refers to information ordinarily immune from disclosure unless it can be overridden by a public interest test. The public interest test in section 2(1)(b) places a duty on a public authority to decide whether “in all the circumstances of the case, the public interest in maintaining the exclusion of the duty to conﬁrm or deny outweighs the public interest in disclosing whether the public authority holds the information”. Exemptions of this type apply for example to information relating to law enforcement (section 31), legal professional privilege (section 42), prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs (section 36), environmental information (section 39), and commercial interests (section 43).
The relevant contested provisions before the Upper Tribunal in the Freedom of Information Act 2000 were section 37 and section 40, and section 41. Prior to being amended by the 2010 Act, section 37 imposed an absolute exemption from disclosure upon communications with the Sovereign entitled “Communications with Her Majesty, etc. and honours”. The 2010 Act extended this protection to similar communications with the Heir to the Throne. Section 40 is also an absolute exemption relating to personal information as defined by the Data Protection Act 1998. Section 41 also exempts absolutely information provided in confidence. In respect of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, the Department for the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs DEFRA relied upon Regulation 12(5)(f) and Regulation 13 which related to the interests of the person supplying the information and personal data, respectively. The Upper Tribunal did not decided whether Prince Charles’ communications amounted to personal data, and concluded that the environmental regulations contained a presumption in favour of disclosure that the Tribunal found no reason to depart from.
The Constitutional Position of the Prince of Wales as Heir to the Throne
It should be noted that none of the parties to the litigation contended that Prince Charles’ activities of “advocacy” to government ministers was at any time or would be unconstitutional. The tribunal decided that there was no established constitutional position for the Heir to the Throne. However, it was noted by Counsel for Mr Evans that Prince Charles’s self-perceived role has been described on his behalf as representational, “drawing attention to issues on behalf of us all” and “representing views in danger of not being heard”. For an account of the Prince of Wales’ activities vis-à-vis his role as Heir to the Throne, the Tribunal drew heavily upon a 1995 article in Public Law by the expert witness for the seven government departments, Rodney Brazier, entitled “The Constitutional Position of the Prince of Wales”. In the 1995 article, Brazier pointed to several features of the Prince of Wales’ activity which were, in his view, “novel” or “surprising”. These included the fact that Prince Charles had arrogated for himself the right to communicate directly with Ministers on affairs of government. Also, Professor Brazier’s 1995 piece pointed out that the Prince was insisting upon enjoying the same rights as the incumbent Monarch in respect of the “tripartite convention”.
Relevant Constitutional Conventions
Writing in 1984, Marshall wrote that the “major purpose of the domestic conventions is to give effect to the principles of governmental accountability that constitute the structure of responsible government.” All parties to the action agreed that there were three conventions which the case engaged. Both sides agreed upon Sir Ivor Jennings’ tripartite test for the existence of a constitutional convention. In The Law and the Constitution (5th ed., 1959) Jennings suggested that a constitutional convention exists if (i) there are precedents underpinning it, (ii) the parties to the relevant practice consider themselves to be bound by it, and (iii) there is a reason for the existence of the convention. Three constitutional conventions were deemed relevant to the dispute. These were the “Cardinal Convention”, which mandates that the Monarch acts on the advice of Ministers. The second was the “Tripartite Convention” which Bagehot famously described in The English Constitution as being the Sovereign’s right to “…be consulted, the right to encourage, [and] the right to warn”. However, neither side advanced the proposition that either of these conventions applied to Prince Charles at the stage in question – when he was neither King nor Regent.
The tribunal remarked that the third convention, “the education convention”, had been regarded until now “as little more than a footnote.” This convention stated that the Heir to the Throne is entitled to be educated in the business of government. The seven government departments representing Prince Charles’ interests also argued that the scope of the education convention covered “advocacy correspondence” and required absolute confidentiality to ensure its proper operation. The Upper Tribunal ruled that the confidentiality of the education convention did not extend to advocacy correspondence. In so ruling, the Tribunal also rejected the seven departments’ contention that the advocacy correspondence merited additional protection over and above “routine” confidential correspondence because it fell within the scope of a constitutional convention.
Argument about the education convention revolved around the “admittedly new contention” advanced by the seven departments “that the education convention has been extended so that it covers all correspondence between government and the heir to the throne.” The Upper Tribunal rejected this contention, stating that “in the public examples that we have seen, the plain facts are that what Prince Charles is doing is not prompted by a desire to become more familiar with the business of government, and simply is not addressing what his role would be as king.” The conclusion of the Tribunal was that inclusion of “advocacy correspondence” within the education convention would involve “a massive extension” of that convention for which no good reason had been advanced. Moreover, the disclosure of advocacy communication would be a general benefit to the operation of the education convention because “[it] will focus the minds of the parties on the important principle that the education convention does not give constitutional status to advocacy communications.” So, because the “advocacy correspondence” fell outside of the scope of the education convention, the interest in maintaining confidentiality under that convention was not engaged.
Differing approaches to the Public Interest of The Upper Tribunal and Parliament
The Upper Tribunal was rightly conscious of the politically charged subject matter of the case, noting in its introductory remarks that:
“[some] will be horrified at any suggestion that correspondence between government and the heir to the throne should be published. They fear, among other things, that disclosure would damage our constitutional structures. Others may welcome such disclosure, fearing among other things that without it there will be no real ability to understand the role played by Prince Charles in government decision-making.”
Therefore, it was common ground that the legal questions in the case revolved around one issue – the issue of disclosure – and whether or not any breach of confidence or privacy that disclosure involved would be in the public interest. The Tribunal, I think quite properly, made clear that it was not seeking “to weigh the benefits of a constitutional monarchy over those of a republic.” In this respect it successfully approached the issue in their intended manner – “dispassionately”.
The Tribunal is also to be commended for its extensive treatment of the question of public interest, which ran to twenty-one pages and covered eight separate aspects. Reference was also made to the Nolan Principles on Public Life for the purposes of general guidance. The aspects of the public interest identified were: (1) the promotion of good governance, (2) Royalty, government, and constitutional debate, (3) understanding Prince Charles’ influence, (4) the education convention and preparation for Kingship, (5) the public perception of Prince Charles, (6) chilling effects on frankness in communication between Prince Charles and Ministers, (7) maintaining confidences and preserving privacy, (8) and finally an attempt was made to take a general perspective on the overall balance. The Tribunal concluded that all eight aspects contained facets which, on balance, pointed towards disclosure in the public interest.
In the course of its evaluation of the public interest in maintaining confidences the Tribunal noted that there was a strong interest in maintaining confidentiality, following the test laid down in Prince of Wales v Associated Newspapers  EWCA Civ 1776, but in view of their detailed consideration of the seven factors, that the “inherent weighty public interest in the maintenance of confidences” cited by the Information Commissioner was vital, it was outweighed by the public interest in disclosure. In respect of the overall balance the Tribunal made clear that it was not persuaded that correspondence between ministers and Prince Charles warranted “greater protection from disclosure than would be afforded to correspondence with others who have dealings with government in a context where those others are seeking to advance the work of charities or to promote views.”
Whilst the Upper Tribunal should be commended for its diligent evaluation of the public interest in respect of the areas it covered, the outgoing New Labour government, supported by Parliament were of the view that the public should simply “Keep Calm and Carry On”. Jack Straw, the Minister sponsoring the Bill during a Commons debate on March 2, 2010, claimed that there was a “lacunae” in the original Freedom of Information Act and that:
“We are blessed in this country by a constitutional monarchy of the highest standards. Whatever turmoil there might have been in our body politic, above it all, and held in continuing high respect, is the position of the sovereign… it is of great importance that we protect the political impartiality of the monarchy, the sovereign’s right and duty to counsel, to encourage and to warn the Government and the right of the heir to the throne to be instructed on the business of government in preparation for the time when they assume the monarchy.”
The former Government Minister’s position reminds the reader of Bagehot’s description of the “dignified” portion of the constitution. Bagehot, writing in the Victorian-era, opined:
“The use of the Queen, in a dignified capacity, is incalculable. [The] best reason why Monarchy is a strong government is, that it is an intelligible government. The mass of mankind understand it, and they hardly anywhere in the world understand any other.”
During the same debate Tony Wright MP (Lab) expressed the opinion that: “The question is whether such communications-after all, the amendment that we are being asked to consider is, in a sense, the Prince Charles amendment…”, and furthermore that government should have to make the case for “giving away a public interest test virtually in perpetuity”. Wright developed his case with reference to the example of homeopathic medicine:
“Let us consider homeopathy, which most sensible people think is not entirely supported by evidence. Suppose that Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, were to weigh in to the debate, giving heavy support to the idea that resources should be devoted to homeopathy. If a Government then decided to start allocating resources to homeopathy, people would be entitled to know that that act of lobbying had been extremely successful. We would want to know about it if it had come from any other source.”
However, since January 2011 Parliament has enacted a legal prohibition upon access to such information, and the only explicit justification offered by the sponsoring Minister was that this was the original intention of the Freedom of Information legislation, and protection of the Heir to the Throne had simply been overlooked by the draftsman. Despite this, there are many hypothetical examples above and beyond support for alternative medicine that would legitimately give rise to a public interest in disclosure. The overall conclusion of the Upper Tribunal is instructive:
“The media interest in Prince Charles’s interaction with ministers is substantial. It seems to us that this is not a factor which in itself necessarily favours disclosure. What is relevant is that there is a real debate, generating widespread public interest, on a matter which goes to the heart of our constitution. Sensationalism merely for the sake of it will not generally be in the public interest.”
The Tribunal noted that the 2010 Act represented “a change in legislative policy”. Such a change in policy is something parliament is constitutionally absolutely entitled to carry out. However, it is regrettable that such a fundamental change occurred in the course of a Bill which contained a laundry list of constitutional amendments, resulting in only a fleeting consideration of its potentially wide-ranging impact upon the operation of government. Bagehot’s seminal work first appeared in 1867. It now seems decidedly at odds with our information society that parliament should expect the people to remain ignorant of the persons and factors which might influence government policy.
Hayley J. Hooper is Lecturer in Law at Trinity College, Oxford.
Suggested citation: H. J. Hooper, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On?’ UK Const. L. Blog (16th October 2012) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org)
Editor’s note: this post was revised on 25th October 2012.