The case for disclosure

It was not in the public interest to disclose an unredacted version of a training manual for the physical restraint of young people in custody.

Carolyne Willow v Information Commissioner (1) and Ministry of Justice (2)

Court of Appeal (Sir Brian Leveson PQBD, McCombe LJ and Newey LJ)

22 November 2017

Executive summary

It was not in the public interest to disclose an unredacted version of a training manual for the physical restraint of young people in custody. The redacted version included sufficient information for the claimant to challenge the use of training techniques. The benefits of disclosure were therefore limited and outweighed by the need to use restraint to protect children and not allow others to develop countermeasures through disclosure.

Background and procedure

The claimant was a qualified social worker who was involved in advancing and protecting children’s rights. Much of her work was focused on the use of restraint techniques on children in custody. She was able, following the intervention of the Information Commissioner, to obtain a copy of the ‘Physical Control in Care’ restraint manual (the PCC) being used for under 18s following a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

In July 2012 a further training manual (the MMPR) was produced dealing with the restraint of 12 to 17 year olds in Secure Training Centres and 15 to 17 year olds in Young Offender Institutions. A redacted copy was publicly available in which the general restraint techniques were identified but the precise training details of how to apply it in practice were removed.  

The claimant requested an unredacted copy by way of a further FOIA request. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) considered that full disclosure could have an effect on good order and security and the request was refused on grounds of FOIA s31(1)(f) (good order) and s38(1)(a),(b) (health and safety). The claimant appealed to the Information Commissioner. He upheld the MOJ decision on the grounds that non-disclosure was necessary for the maintenance of security and good order and was in the public interest.

The claimant further appealed to the First Tier Tribunal (FTT) of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal which held that the extent and detail of material in the public domain meant that the benefit of further disclosure on the grounds of transparency and public interest was of limited value. Further disclosure had to be weighed against the damage that would be done by potentially violent adults learning and applying techniques described in the MMPR that were used in adult prisons. This would impact upon the safety of people and staff in Young Offender Institutions.

The claimant next appealed to the Upper Tribunal on the grounds that the FTT decision was both irrational and failed to consider the best interests of the child as the primary consideration pursuant to UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (‘UNCRC’). In rejecting these arguments the Upper Tribunal ruled that the FTT decision was rational and that the UNCRC had no application to these proceedings.

The claimant appealed on the same grounds to the Court of Appeal.

Decision

The Court of Appeal did not consider the decision to be irrational. There was sufficient information in the redacted version for a person to challenge the use of a technique described in all and any circumstances. The benefits of disclosure were limited given the extent of material that was already in the public domain. If an independent reviewer needed to see the unredacted manual that would surely be possible but that was very different from an FOIA request which would place the material at the disposal of every requester, including offenders.

The court did not agree that the UNCRC applied. International treaties were binding in international law but not part of English law. They would become relevant to construe English law if there was any ambiguity in the statute. In this case, the meaning of ‘public interest’ in the FOIA was not in question. In any event, the interests of the child had clearly been at the forefront of the considerations of the Information Commissioner and the FTT. It was plainly in the interests of children to ensure that steps could be taken to retain control in institutions where they were held.

Comment

This case concerns the classic weighing of competing interests. It is clear that the need to maintain order and protect people will always weigh heavily against disclosure. It is also clear that disclosure will be much less likely when extensive disclosure has already been given.

For further information or to discuss any of the issues in this update, please contact John Riddell, Partner on 0116 242 8925 or email john.riddell@weightmans.com.

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