Section 36 of FOI: An Appellant’s Perspective

Norman Baird writes:FOI4

The University of London International Programmes offers an LLB degree by distance learning. It is studied by thousands of students worldwide. With such a large number of students, the University relies on a large number of lecturers from a variety of universities to mark the exam scripts. The University provides some academic support – in the form of written guides and recorded lectures – but relies on private institutions to provide face-to-face tuition. I am Academic Director of one such institution. I made an FOI request for the marking guidelines issued to the markers.

My request was declined. The University relied on S.36(2)(c) which is engaged if, in the reasonable opinion of the Qualified Person(QP), disclosure would or would be likely to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs. If it is engaged it is then subject to a public interest test. The University stated that :

“disclosing the marking guidelines, in this case and as a precedent, would fundamentally affect one of the University’s core functions, that of robust exam assessment”.

And this opinion was arrived at on the basis of three subsidiary claims of particular harms. These are, somewhat confusingly, also described in terms of prejudices.

First, the University contended that “the disclosure of the marking guidelines… would be likely to prejudice the effective operation of the University’s examiners in preparing the most robust and effective guidelines…”

Second, that “disclosure of the marking guidelines would be likely to prejudice the actions and efforts of students, who may try to adapt their essay answers to marking guidelines developed at examiner level for examiners, resulting in mistakes in comprehension and lower attainment scores.”

Third, the University maintained that “disclosure would be likely to prejudice the nature of the guidelines, where a requirement to establish a process to publish marking guidelines will transform them from useful internal assessment tools to just another external facing study aid, of which a wide range of provision already exists.”

The Information Commissioner found in favour of the University and so I appealed to the First Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) on the grounds that the opinion was neither reasonable in substance nor reasonably arrived at. In addition, I contended that the public interest in favour of disclosure outweighed the arguments against. But in the limited space here I only want to look at a couple of my submissions.

My first ground was that the Qualified Person, Vice-Chancellor (V-C) Professor Geoffrey Crossick, had not expressed an opinion as required by the section. This had been added to my grounds of appeal at a late stage as it was only when the University responded to my initial appeal that I first saw the ‘opinion’ signed by the Qualified Person. He had been provided with an ‘evidence pack’ in which he was advised that, in the opinion of the International Academy of the University, disclosure would be prejudicial. He had written:

“I have now reviewed the evidence with respect to the FOI request asking for… the marking guidelines. It is my conclusion that the opinion – that disclosing the marking guidelines, in this case and as a precedent, would fundamentally affect one of the University’s core functions, that of robust exam assessment – is reasonable in substance.

I confirm that, in my capacity as qualified person, that this exemption is engaged with respect to the request for marking guidelines.”

He states that the opinion (of the International Academy) that disclosure would be prejudicial was a reasonable one. Now, it is clear that one person may recognise another’s opinion as reasonable without sharing that opinion. The section requires the QP to express his opinion that prejudice would or would be likely to be caused. The V-C did not do so.

And it is not possible to conclude from his final sentence that he believed that prejudice would result. He appears to have formed the view that, provided he thought the opinion was reasonable, the section was engaged. In effect, he expressed himself in terms consistent with the role of the Information Commissioner and not that required of a Qualified Person.

It is notable that the V-C was not consulted again at the internal review stage and there was no other evidence that, in his opinion, disclosure would be prejudicial. In addition, the advice given in the evidence pack with which the V-C had been provided the advice was ambiguous. Although S.36(2)(c) was reproduced, the V-C had been advised that the University’s opinion was that disclosure would be prejudicial and that he was required to ‘authorise’ the exemption.

My second ground of appeal was that the ‘opinion’ was not reasonably arrived at. There were a number of limbs to this submission including the fact that the subsidiary claims were unsupported by evidence, were barely comprehensible and there was no evidence that anyone involved in making the decision or advising the V-C had actually read the documents.

But I would like to focus on one submission as it appears to me to be central to the way in which the ‘opinion’ and the Decision Notice (DN) should be approached. It is well established that although the opinion need only be a reasonable opinion and not the most reasonable it must be ‘rational’, ‘not illogical’, ‘not arbitrary’. I submitted that there was a lack of logical coherence between the opinion and the subsidiary harms upon which it rests.

The ‘opinion’ was that disclosure would prejudice robust exam assessment. The subsidiary claims, however, are expressed in terms of likely effects. To conclude that prejudice to the assessment system would occur because prejudice to students and examiners is likely is as illogical and irrational as concluding that consumption of a drug would be fatal on the grounds that it is likely to induce a fatal heart attack and/or terminal cancer.

The response to this argument by the Information Commissioner was that although the University and the Decision Notice had claimed throughout that disclosure ‘would’ cause prejudice the overall tenor of the opinion and the DN was that the ‘would be likely’ limb was being relied on. In effect, the IC is saying that although he said one thing he meant another. As I argued at the Tribunal, if the opinion is to be read so that it is consistent with the subsidiary claims it is impossible for a requester to argue that the opinion and the subsidiary claims are incoherent.

The section is a powerful one for a Public Authority. It has been described as a ‘get out of jail free card’ and so it is submitted that it ought to be construed narrowly and applied strictly. It is not particularly difficult to express the opinion correctly. And although the Decision Notice is not to be read as though it is a judgment of the Court of Appeal, a requester who appeals is at a great disadvantage if all its inconsistencies are smoothed over to ensure the appearance of logical consistency and coherence.

It has been said (and was repeated at the Tribunal) that a requester will find it difficult to establish that an opinion was not ‘ a reasonable opinion reasonably arrived’. That will certainly be true if an opinion can be found when none was expressed and if the central requirements of reasonableness – rationality and logical coherence – are ignored or fudged.

I look forward to reading the opinion of the Tribunal but I am not optimistic.

Norman Baird has been lecturing on Criminal Law and Jurisprudence for approximately 30 years and runs law courses in London and abroad. He also publishes a blog: www.llblondon.com

Ibrahim Hasan will be discussing this and other recent FOI decisions in our FOI Update workshops in 2014.

Do you want an international recognised qualification in FOI? The BCS/ISEB Certificate in Freedom of Information starts in March 2014 in London and Manchester.

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