Judges could hear information rights tribunal cases on their own

Out-Law News | 19 Aug 2014 | 5:01 pm | 1 min. read

Judges could determine the outcome of some information rights tribunal cases on their own in future under just-published proposals.

Senior president of tribunals (SPT) Sir Jeremy Sullivan is looking to introduce greater flexibility to the current system, in which two lay people experienced in information law generally sit alongside a judge sitting on information rights tribunal panels. Those people would have experience of data protection and freedom of information (FOI) compliance.

Under Sir Jeremy's plans judge Nicholas Warren, general regulatory chamber president, would be able to appoint a judge on their own to determine the outcome of some cases. The SPT has the power to alter the composition of a tribunal under the First-tier Tribunal and Upper Tribunal (Composition of Tribunal) Order.

"The proposal is to vary the practice statement so as to give the chamber president the flexibility to allow some cases to be decided by a judge sitting alone," a consultation issued on behalf of Sir Jeremy said. "For the vast majority of cases, the chamber president proposes that members with substantial experience of data protection or the freedom of information should continue to sit on tribunals which give final decisions. Nor does he propose any reduction in the number of members forming a tribunal panel. It does appear, however, that there are a small number of appeals which could be decided swiftly and proportionately by a judge sitting alone."

According to the consultation, examples of information rights cases that judges could determine the outcome of on their own (4-page / 34KB PDF) include when the issue before the tribunal is whether a public authority can be said to hold information that has been requested under FOI laws. Only if information is 'held' by a public body can it be required to disclose that information under FOI laws.

Other information rights disputes judges could determine the outcome of alone include whether public authorities have breached the statutory time limit for responding to FOI requests or subject access requests under the Data Protection Act, or whether the cost of complying with requests for information "exceeds the costs limit".

In addition, judges could also decide cases on their own where they are "already familiar with the evidence because of previous involvement with the case and all parties are content that a decision should be taken without a hearing".

The consultation is open for comments until Friday 3 October.