FOIMan examines the exemption protecting legal advice.
If you’re being sued, you will no doubt want to seek legal advice. Even if you’re not, but you want to make sure your activities are compliant with legal requirements, you would want to seek such advice.
There is an established convention that such advice is confidential, with good reason. If you ask for advice, and the advice comes back saying that your case is weak, you don’t want those who might litigate against you to get access to it. It’s up to their lawyers to make the case against you. If you thought that adverse advice might be disclosed, you probably wouldn’t ask for it in the first place, as it could leave you in a weaker position.
That’s why there is an exemption to cover this. But perhaps surprisingly, it is subject to a public interest test. So in some cases, it might be disclosed.
Advice (and requests for advice) from solicitors, barristers or legal executives.
Things that FOI Officers need to know
- there are 2 types of information covered by legal professional privilege – litigation advice and legal advice
- be clear who the client is, and who is giving the legal advice
- keep it to yourselves – if the advice is shared beyond those it is given to, there is a risk that it could be said that the advice is no longer confidential (and therefore no longer protected by privilege)
- information that already existed before the advice was sought (to give an FOI-world example – a document that has been requested under FOI that you have sent to an in-house lawyer for their opinion on whether an exemption might apply) will not be protected by legal professional privilege, but if the information (perhaps in the form of an attachment or enclosure) has been prepared specifically to support the legal advice then it would attract protection.
- if it is legal advice that has been kept confidential there is a very good chance that it will be exempt – whilst there is a public interest test, both the Commissioner and Tribunals agree that there is a substantial public interest in maintaining legal professional privilege
- That said – there are factors that might weigh in favour of disclosure – see below.
Things that requesters need to know
- whilst it is recognised that there is a substantial public interest in maintaining privilege, the very fact that s42 is qualified means that in some circumstances legal advice will be disclosed
- as always, timing is a factor – if the risk of litigation has lessened, then there will be less of a public interest in maintaining the exemption
- if the advice is not on an issue affecting individuals, it has been argued that the public interest in withholding it will be lessened
- if the substance of the advice has previously been disclosed in an unrestricted manner, it may be that firstly legal professional privilege may not apply; but that even if it did, the public interest in withholding it is reduced.
Essential case law
- Bellamy v Information Commissioner & Secretary of State for Trade & Industry (EA/2005/0023)
- Mersey Tunnel Users Association v Information Commissioner & Merseytravel (EA/2007/0052)
- Information Commissioner’s guidance on The exemption for legal professional privilege (section 42), v.1.2, November 2012
- J. Wadham, K. Harris and G. Peretz (2011), Blackstone’s Guide to The Freedom of Information Act 2000, 4th ed., OUP