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  1. Media Law
August 6, 2014

Newspaper fails in bid to name two councillors who did not pay £4,660 council tax on time

By PA Media Lawyer

A newspaper has failed in its attempt to name two councillors who were summoned to court after failing to pay £4,660 in council tax on time.

An information tribunal has ruled that the councillors being identified in the Bolton News "could potentially cause unnecessary and unjustified damage".

The tribunal noted, though, that the title could have obtained the information by being at the magistrates' court when it dealt with the council tax lists. The tribunal said: "That attendance, on behalf of the public, provides a platform for legitimate and legally privileged publication of the information."

The explanation was given as the first tier tribunal rejected an appeal by Bolton News reporter Dale Haslam against the decision of the Information Commissioner that Bolton Council was right to refuse to name the councillors in response to a request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

The newspaper has been calling for the past 18 months for various authorities to name the two councillors – one Labour and one Conservative – who were summoned to court. 

It argued in the appeal that it was reasonable for the public to expect certain standards of behaviour from their elected councillors – which would paying their council tax on time – and to know if councillors fell below those standards.

Councillors were elected representatives and in charge of public finance, and by standing for public office had surrendered some of the rights to protection of their data in cases where they abused the trust placed in them by the electorate.

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But the first tier tribunal on information rights – Judge Robin Callender Smith, sitting with tribunal members John Randall and Marion Saunders – held that the councillors should remain anonymous as the circumstances of their cases "placed the individuals in a position where they could significantly and legitimately have expected not to be named".

Identifying them would also be a breach of their right to respect for privacy and family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, it held.

The tribunal said: "To an extent the Tribunal appreciates that – in upholding the Commissioner's decision in respect of this matter (and the Council's position) – the protection given to the local councillors may appear to be counterintuitive."

But it was satisfied on the balance of probabilities that it should continue to give the local councillors the protection they have been allowed so far.

The tribunal said it was clear from the decision of the House of Lords in Common Services Agency v Scottish Information Commissioner that there was no presumption that openness and transparency of the activities of public officials should take priority over their personal privacy.

It had seen and considered – as closed and confidential information – the councillors' personal mitigating circumstances, it said, adding: "The Tribunal has no doubt that those personal circumstances placed the individuals in a position where they could 'significantly and legitimately' have expected not to be named."

The tribunal went on to say that having considered the issues of balance and proportionality which arose from the private life issues and the Article 10 issues of freedom of speech in terms of local newspapers' duties to inform the public "that releasing the information could potentially cause unnecessary and unjustified damage and distress to the individuals".

Releasing the information would breach the first data protection principle in the Data Protection Act 1998, that personal data shall be processed fairly and lawfully.

The council had previously published information about people who failed to pay their Poll Tax but stopped doing so because of the impact on the individuals, the tribunal said.

Publishing names had not helped the council collect council tax, and in any event the authority believed that that such publication would breach the individuals' Article 8 rights.

The tribunal added: "It is not as if the newspaper cannot ever obtain such information. But, to do so, it must be physically present in court during the council tax 'lists' at the Magistrates' Court. That attendance, on behalf of the public, provides a platform for legitimate and legally privileged publication of the information."

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