Information law: area of practice (barristers)
A typical freedom of information case begins with a request to a public authority for information. If that information is withheld, the requester can complain to the Information Commissioner and both parties (the requester and the public authority) have a right of appeal to a tribunal. Most tribunal hearings last for a day, with witnesses giving evidence about the nature of the information requested and about the public interests in withholding it or disclosing it.
Infomation law clients and cases
The requester can be anyone – an individual with a particular interest in a topic, a journalist or a campaign group, for example. The other parties are the public authority which has refused to disclose the information and, often, the Information Commissioner. Unusually for a court, there are closed sessions where the disputed information is considered without the requester present.
Data protection cases, on the other hand, are about ensuring that an individual’s personal data is stored and used fairly by third parties (in both the public and private sectors). The Data Protection Act 1998 is used by individuals to get copies of information held about them, to correct inaccurate information, to stop third parties from continuing to hold personal information unnecessarily and (in limited circumstances) to seek damages. Hearings take place in the county court or high court.
Barristers in this area tend to also have a general public law practice, although a few specialise almost entirely in information law. With preparation for hearings, drafting documents and interesting advisory work to be done, you may spend about a quarter of your time in court, and hearings can take place across the country. Compared to some other areas of law, the work/life balance is fairly sensible, although there will be the occasional urgent case and some evening and weekend working in order to keep on top of everything.
Information law barristers get involved in headline-grabbing work
The best aspect of information law is that it is fast-moving and headline grabbing. If you represent a public authority you will get to view the disputed information, which could be top secret. If you represent a requester, you may help them to get important information into the public domain.
Recent landmark cases include Department of Health v. Information Commissioner and John Healey MP. The tribunal ordered the Department of Health to release the risk registers relating to NHS reforms (which included an assessment of the risk of patient care suffering while the reforms are put in place). The government exercised its statutory veto in response to the decision.
Another interesting case was All Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition v. IC and Foreign & Commonwealth Office. This was a tribunal decision on releasing information about the UK’s role in rendition to Guantanamo Bay.
Aspiring information law barristers should be aware of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, Data Protection Act 1998, Environmental Information Regulations 2004, Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, and Human Rights Act 1998.
Is information law recession-proof?
This is a relatively new and expanding area of law. It has weathered the recession well and is not affected by the legal aid reforms, but there may be future legislative changes.
As a pupil barrister...
Pupils don’t often have to work evenings or weekends, although this depends on their supervisor’s practice and the culture at their chambers. They will accompany their pupil supervisor to court and will assist in drafting pleadings, witness statements and advice. There may be the opportunity to take on cases in their second six.
Types of law practised
- Breach of statutory duty
- Common law torts.
Good information law barristers have...
- The ability to communicate with people from all walks of life.
- An analytical brain – this is essential for grappling with the legislation.
RACHEL KAMM is an employment and public law practitioner at 11KBW. She was called to the Bar in 2006 and has a degree in politics, philosophy and economics from Oxford University.