The government is likely to move ahead with severely damaging changes to the Freedom of Information appeals process.
It is “carefully considering” whether to remove First Tier Tribunal (FTT) from the appeals process. The abolition of the appeal stage has been under discussion since March, after the government’s FOI review concluded.
The FTT hears appeals – from both individuals and public bodies – against decisions issued by the Information Commissioner’s Office. In 11 years of FOI in England, Wales and Northern Ireland more than 9,400 of these have been published.
As a decision maker, the FTT can decide arguments that are based on the public interest. These can be made by someone without a detailed knowledge of the FOI legislation.
In a recent publication the government has said it may remove the court from the FOI appeals process – meaning FOI appeals will only be able to be made to the Upper Tribunal and on points of law. The Government Response to the Justice Committee’s Second Report of session 2016/17, published in early November 2016 says:
“The Government does not believe that this recommendation is related to court and tribunal fees and we believe that strictly it falls outside the terms of reference of the Justice Committee’s inquiry.
“Nevertheless, as set out in the statement on 1 March 2016 of the then Minister of State at the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, this is one of a number of recommendations made by the Independent Commission that are being carefully considered.”
The suggestion of abolishing the First Tier Tribunal was made by the Independent Review on Freedom of Information earlier this year.
Introducing statutory time periods for internal reviews; publishing FOI performance figures for authorities with more than 1090 staff members; and reviewing the funding of the regulator, the ICO, to name a few.
Recommendation 17, however, is a standout recommendation as it offers the potential to hamper the right of appeal. It says:
That the government legislates to remove the right of appeal to the First-tier Tribunal against decisions of the IC made in respect of the Act. Where someone remained dissatisfied with the IC’s decision, an appeal would still lie to the Upper Tribunal. The Upper Tribunal appeal is not intended to replicate the full-merits appeal that currently exists before the IC and First-tier Tribunal, but is limited to a point of law.