Prince Charles letters must be disclosed, rules Supreme Court

Out-Law News | 30 Mar 2015 | 4:45 pm | 1 min. read

The government must disclose letters exchanged between Prince Charles and government ministers over a series of months a decade ago, the Supreme Court has ruled.

The Court said (75-page / 504KB PDF) that the correspondence, from between September 2004 and March 2005, should be made public under freedom of information (FOI) laws.

In his leading judgment, Lord Neuberger said that provisions within the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) did not give the attorney general of England and Wales the power to "override" an earlier upper information rights tribunal ruling.

The judge said that ministers or law officers of the Crown cannot exercise a statutory power of veto under FOIA on the basis that they disagree with a judicial tribunal or court ruling after assessing "the same facts and arguments" as the tribunal or court. The power of veto therefore, the Court said, has "a very narrow range of potential application".

Under 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 provision, however, was not relevant to the letters sought by the Guardian in this case.

FOIA also includes 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 ,inisters 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.