Newspaper given permission to appeal block on publication of Prince Charles' letters to ministers

Out-Law News | 26 Jul 2013 | 3:54 pm | 2 min. read

The Guardian has been given permission to appeal a High Court decision blocking the publication of letters from Prince Charles to Government ministers, it has said.

Earlier this month, the High Court said that the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, had acted properly when he used his powers to block publication of the letters after the Information Tribunal ruled that they should be made available on public interest grounds. The Guardian's appeal will be heard by the Court of Appeal later this year, according to an article on the paper's website.

The Guardian submitted a freedom of information (FOI) request to the Cabinet Office asking for 27 letters written by the prince to ministers in seven Government departments over a nine-month period in 2005.

Under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) individuals have a general 'right to know', which entitles them to be provided with information held by Government departments and public bodies. However, those bodies can legitimately withhold information requested in some circumstances. Since 2011 these exemptions have included "material communications" between the Prince of Wales and ministers. This does not apply to the letters in dispute, some of which date back to 2004.

The FOIA also creates a power of 'ministerial veto', which can be used where the Information Commissioner has ordered the disclosure of information relating to government departments on public interest grounds. This power can only be used by Ministers of the Crown who are in the Cabinet; or Law Officers of the Crown such as the Attorney General of England and Wales. According to Government policy, the power will only be used in "exceptional circumstances" and the person using the veto must be able to show "reasonable grounds" for doing so.

In a statement presented to the Information Commissioner following the Information Tribunal's decision, Grieve said that he was of the opinion that "the public interest favours non-disclosure" of the letters. This was because the correspondence took place "with the expectation that it would be confidential" and that disclose could "damage the Prince of Wales' ability to perform his duties when he becomes King".

"It is a matter of the highest importance within our constitutional framework that the Monarch is a politically neutral figure able to engage in confidence with the Government of the day, whatever its political colour," he said. "In my view, there is nothing in the nature or content of this particular correspondence which outweighs that strong public interest against disclosure."

He added that there was "nothing improper in the nature or content of the letters", but that they reflected the Prince's "most deeply held personal views and beliefs" and were "in many cases particularly frank".

Ruling against the Guardian's challenge earlier this month, Lord Justice Davis said that Grieve had demonstrated "reasonable grounds" for exercising the veto.

"The views and reasons expressed as to where the balance of public interest lies are proper and rational," he said. "They make sense. In fact, I have no difficulty in holding them to be 'cogent'."

However the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, added that the power itself was a "constitutional aberration" which raised "troublesome concerns".

"It is not quite a pernicious 'Henry VIIII clause', which enables a minister to override statute but, unconstrained, it would have the same damaging effect on the rule of law," he said.