Justices hear Charles letters row

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Published: Monday 24th November 2014 by The News Editor

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A legal dispute over letters the Prince of Wales wrote to government ministers reaches the UK’s highest court today.

Seven justices at the Supreme Court in London will hear a challenge by the Attorney General against a ruling that he has unlawfully prevented the public seeing the royal correspondence.

He is appealing against a Court of Appeal decision in March.

Master of the Rolls Lord Dyson and two other appeal judges unanimously ruled that the Government’s principal legal adviser 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.

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

At the time of the Court of Appeal judgment the Attorney General was Dominic Grieve, and a spokesman for him said then that the case would be taken to the Supreme Court “in order to protect the important principles which are at stake in this case”.

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 hand-written letters he pens to government ministers expressing his views.

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 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 Charles had written seeking to advance the work of charities or to promote views.

The seven departments Charles wrote to are Business, Innovation and Skills; Health; Children, Schools and Families; Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Culture, Media and Sport; the Northern Ireland Office and the Cabinet Office.

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 Lord Dyson, sitting with Lord Justice Richards and Lord Justice Pitchford, all agreed that the Attorney General had gone wrong in law and the Section 53 certificate should be quashed.

Lord Dyson ruled: ”I do not consider that it is reasonable for an accountable person (the Attorney General) to issue a Section 53(2) certificate merely because he disagrees with the decision of the tribunal. Something more is required.

“Examples of what would suffice are that there has been a material change of circumstances since the tribunal decision or that the decision of the tribunal was demonstrably flawed in fact or in law.”

The Attorney General’s actions were also incompatible with European law, said the judge.

Supreme Court President Lord Neuberger will hear the case today and tomorrow with Lady Hale, Lord Mance, Lord Kerr, Lord Wilson, Lord Reed and Lord Hughes, with their decision expected to be delivered at a later date.

They will decide on a number of issues, including the “correct construction” of Section 53 (2) of the Freedom of Information Act, in particular “what is the proper test for determining whether the ‘accountable person’ has ‘reasonable grounds’ which entitle him to issue a certificate overriding a decision of the Upper Tribunal”.

The court will also look at “whether the decision to exercise the power was lawful and/or taken on reasonable grounds”.

The office of Attorney General is currently held by Jeremy Wright QC.

Published: Monday 24th November 2014 by The News Editor

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