The UK Freedom of Information Act (2000), has enshrined the general right of access to information held by public authorities in law. Since its inception, the FOI regime has been accessible to all individuals, irrespective of the citizenship and residency of applicants. However, ambiguity has arisen on the basis that Acts of Parliament are presumed not to have “extra-territorial effect.” This has led to a situation where, despite their own guidance, the Information Commissioner has raised the issue of territoriality and whether an applicant abroad could rely on the FOI Act. Consequently, over a dozen cases relating to FOI requests have been stayed pending a hearing at the First Tier Tribunal. One of the stayed cases was brought by an investigative journalist dedicated to uncovering human rights violations.
ILP represented an investigative journalist seeking information on the alleged trafficking of human blood samples from Sierra Leone to the UK by corporations, without the consent of patients. Our case formed part of a successful joint challenge at the UK’s FOI Tribunal - one of the most important in recent years - setting new legal precedent on the territorial scope of the UK’s FOI laws which is binding on future UK FOI cases.
The success of this legal challenge guarantees the rights of non-UK citizens to make FOI requests. It also overturns a potentially damaging decision by the lower tribunal that would have enabled companies to operate abroad on behalf of the British government without the equivalent level of scrutiny and accountability that they have to provide to UK citizens.
This judgement helps to ensure the FOI rights of those who have been seriously affected by the actions of the British government and its contractors are able to access information on an equal basis as UK citizens, enabling them to contest the decisions of powerful actors when they have acted unlawfully. ILP’s lawyers also successfully gained judicial approval and precedent for the journalist to join the proceedings via video link from Ethiopia where previously the FOI Tribunal had insisted that parties travel to the court in person - sometimes at very great expense.
Health workers take a patient to a treatment centre during the 2014 Ebola epidemic in Liberia.
Credit: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP Photo