Dinah Rose QC wins Prince Charles “spider letter” case for Guardian journalist

The Court of Appeal (CoA) has said a Guardian reporter should be able to see contentious secret letters written by Prince Charles to the Government, quashing an order by the Attorney General to avoid revealing them. 

In a judgment handed down this morning (12 March) the CoA said the attorney general Dominic Grieve QC acted unlawfully when he issued a veto overriding journalist Rob Evans’ win in a freedom of information tribunal.

Master of the Rolls (MR) Lord Dyson, leading the ruling, said the controversial veto should be removed and the 2012 Upper Tribunal (UT) decision ordering the release of the letters to the public restored.

He said: “[Grieve] had no good reason for overriding the meticulous decision of the UT, reached after six days of hearing and argument. He could point to no error of law or fact in the UT’s decision and the Government departments concerned did not even seek permission to appeal it.”

The ruling hands a win to Blackstone Chambers’ Dinah Rose QC and reverses her loss at the High Court in July 2013 (9 July 2013), when the court said Grieve had been right to veto publication of the letters.

Rose, instructed directly by Guardian News & Media’s Jan Clements, led set-mate Stephanie Palmer and One Brick Court’s Aidan Eardley at the CoA. Rose and Eardley have represented Evans through two legs of his ongoing 10-year battle to expose the Prince’s spider letters, so called because of the scratchy handwriting.

Dinah Rose QC
Dinah Rose QC

The Government has been represented throughout by 11KBW’s Jonathan Swift QC and Julian Milford who were instructed by the Treasury Solicitor.

The newspaper has been struggling to expose the letters to the public view for nine years, to shed more light on the way the heir to the throne seeks to influence Government ministers despite claiming political neutrality. However the attorney general said the prince’s future role as king could be threatened by their publication, which could destabilise his impression of political neutrality.

Evans had been refused permission to see the letters, written over an eight-month period between 2004 and 2005, and was refused again by the Information Commissioner in 2009.

Blackstone Chambers’ Michael Fordham QC, leading Eardley, represented Evans before the Upper Tribunal in 2012. Mark Thorogood, a lawyer for the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), instructed 11KBW’s Timothy Pitt-Payne QC at that stage. Pitt-Payne appeared for the ICO as an interested party at the CoA.

Today’s decision by Dyson MR will reinstate the Upper Tribunal’s decision, reversing the High Court judgment handed down by Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge, Lord Justice Davis and Mr Justice Globe. 

Dyson MR ruled that Grieve’s veto was unlawful under European Commission law.

Case timeline and legal line-up

2004-05

Prince Charles sends letters to the Cabinet Office and departments responsible for business, health, schools, environment, culture and Northern Ireland over a period of eight months. The Guardian files a Freedom of Information request but the Government argues that the letters should be kept secret.

2009

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the non-departmental public body dealing with the Data Protection Act and Freedom of Information Act, refuses the Guardian’s application to see the letters.

18 September 2012

The Upper Tribunal contradicts the ICO and rules that information should be released.

Upper Tribunal line-up

For the appellant Rob Evans

Blackstone Chambers’ Michael Fordham QC and One Brick Court’s Aidan Eardley, instructed by Guardian News & Media in-house lawyer Jan Clements

For the respondent the Information Commissioner

11KBW’s Timothy Pitt-Payne QC, instructed by the Information Commissioner’s Office lawyer Mark Thorogood

For the additional parties (1) Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, (2) Department of Health  (3) Department for Children, Schools and Families (4) Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (5) Department for Culture, Media and Sport (6) Northern Ireland Office (7) Cabinet Office

11KBW’s Jonathan Swift QC and Julian Milford, instructed by the Treasury Solicitor

October 2012

Attorney general Dominic Grieve uses section 53 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to employ a veto giving the government “exemption from duty to comply with decision notice or enforcement notice.” He argues that the prince’s future role as king would be threatened by publication of the letters as it could threaten his impression of political neutrality.

9 July 2013

High Court rejects the Guardian’s case that the veto was used improperly and concludes that the letters should remain secret.

High Court legal line-up

For the claimant Rob Evans

Blackstone Chambers’ Dinah Rose QC leading One Brick Court’s Aidan Eardley, instructed by Guardian News & Media in-house lawyer Jan Clements

For the respondent HM Attorney General

11KBW’s Jonathan Swift QC and Julian Milford instructed by the Treasury Solicitor

For the intervener Information Commissioner

11KBW’s Timothy Pitt-Payne QC, instructed by the Information Commissioner’s Office

12 March 2013

The Court of Appeal upholds Evans’ appeal, quashing Grieve’s order.

Court of Appeal legal line-up

For the appellant Rob Evans 

Blackstone Chambers’ Dinah Rose QC and Stephanie Palmer, with Aidan Eardley of One Brick Court, instructed by Guardian News & Media in-house lawyer Jan Clements.

For the respondent the Attorney General 

11KBW’s Jonathan Swift QC and Julian Milford instructed by the Treasury Solicitor

For the intervener Information Commissioner

11KBW’s Timothy Pitt-Payne QC, instructed by the Information Commissioner’s Office