Decision due over Charles letters

Published: Thursday 26th March 2015 by The News Editor

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The UK’s highest court is to give a decision today on the latest round of a legal battle over publication of letters written by the Prince of Wales.

Supreme Court justices have been urged to overturn a ruling which paved the way for letters written by Charles to government ministers to be revealed to the public.

After a hearing in London in November, a panel of seven judges is set to announce their ruling in the dispute over disclosure of the royal correspondence.

The Attorney General, the Government’s principal legal adviser, has challenged a decision by three Court of Appeal judges last year that he has unlawfully prevented the public seeing the letters.

The case is believed to mark the first time that anyone has challenged the Attorney General’s powers to block access to information.

Last year appeal judges unanimously ruled that the Attorney General has “no good reason” for using his ministerial veto and overriding the decision of an independent tribunal, chaired by a High Court judge, in favour of disclosure.

But, at the subsequent Supreme Court hearing, James Eadie QC, for the Attorney General, argued that the appeal judges “erred” in reaching their conclusion.

In 2005 Guardian journalist Rob Evans applied to see a number of written communications between Charles and various government ministers between September 2004 and April 2005.

Mr Eadie told the justices that “the Government departments considered that they had no duty to disclose the requested information, and indeed had countervailing duties of confidentiality and as data controllers not to disclose it”, and the Information Commissioner agreed.

The Attorney General had “strong grounds for his opinion that the Government and the Commissioner were right to find that the disputed information was exempt”.

Mr Eadie told the panel of justices, led by Supreme Court president Lord Neuberger: “Everyone has the right to respect for their correspondence.

“Such respect is necessary not only as an aspect of privacy, but also to enable freedom of expression, which would inevitably be inhibited by the removal of the right to communicate privately.

“All the more so in the case of the Prince of Wales, whose freedom to express himself publicly is constrained by his role as heir to the throne.”

Charles is known for his strong opinions on a range of topics from the environment and farming to complementary medicine and architecture.

He has faced accusations in the past of “meddling” in day-to-day politics and criticism over his “black spider memos” – the name given to the handwritten letters he pens to government ministers expressing his views.

Mr Evans sought disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA), and under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004.

The Upper Tribunal (UT) declared in September 2012 that he was entitled to see ”advocacy correspondence”, described as letters the Prince had written seeking to advance the work of charities or to promote views.

A month after the UT ruling, the Attorney General used his ministerial veto by issuing a certificate under Section 53 of the FOIA.

He said the public could interpret the letters sent to ministers in the last Labour government as showing Charles to be ”disagreeing with government policy”.

The Attorney General said any perception that Charles had disagreed with Tony Blair’s government “would be seriously damaging to his role as future monarch because, if he forfeits his position of political neutrality as heir to the throne, he cannot easily recover it when he is king”.

In his opinion, Government departments were legally entitled to refuse disclosure because the correspondence was undertaken as part of the Prince’s ”preparation for becoming king”.

Mr Evans accused him of failing to show ”reasonable grounds” for blocking disclosure.

The journalist lost his case in the High Court, but Master of the Rolls Lord Dyson, Lord Justice Richards and Lord Justice Pitchford all agreed at the Court of Appeal that the Attorney General had gone wrong in law and the Section 53 certificate should be quashed.

At the time of the Court of Appeal ruling, the Attorney General was Dominic Grieve. The office is currently held by Jeremy Wright QC.

Published: Thursday 26th March 2015 by The News Editor

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