The Law Society has apologised to its freedom of information (FoI) adjudicator after failing to provide him with an “additional and substantial” body of information relating to ‘Harry Potter solicitor’ Alan Blacker, also known as Lord Harley.
Describing the incident as “troubling”, adjudicator Adam Sowerbutts said “such administrative errors do little to instil confidence in the society’s handling of information requests”.
Mr Sowerbutts ruled last summer that the society should disclose letters and reports involving the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and the charity run by Mr Blacker, the Joint Armed Forces Legal Advisory Service.
The adjudicator said his latest ruling followed a challenge by a person identified only as ‘RH’, who argued that the society had breached its voluntary code of practice on freedom of information when it failed to release documents relating to its decision not to comply fully with the earlier ruling.
Mr Sowerbutts referred to Mr Blacker as a “certain named solicitor”, whose activities in 2014 “led to comment in the national media”. In the earlier ruling he was referred to as ‘AB’, which the third party in the case confirmed to Legal Futures was indeed Alan Blacker.
Mr Sowerbutts said that following last summer’s adjudication, the society stated that it was “considering its position” on whether to comply.
Describing non-compliance as “extremely rare”, the adjudicator said that in September the society told RH that Mr Blacker “had, in fact, applied for an injunction against it seeking to prevent the disclosure directed”.
Mr Sowerbutts said that under the society’s FoI code, it was not required to disclose information from its in-house legal advisers which could harm its “legal interests”.
He went on: “Following receipt of the parties’ submissions, I undertook a detailed review of the withheld information provided to me.
“As a result of that review it became evident that, despite the society’s assurances, the information it had provided was not a full and complete record as it had said.”
It was only in December, the adjudicator said, that the society provided an “additional and substantial body of withheld information… [which] comprised of e-mail exchanges running to several hundred pages, albeit with very considerable duplication arising from a number of lengthy email chains being repeatedly reproduced in the format the material was provided to me”.
The society told him that its “failure to provide this material” to him earlier “was ‘purely as the result of an administrative error’ on its part, for which it sincerely apologised”.
Mr Sowerbutts went on: “At this point I consider appropriate to register my concern at being provided with such a substantial body of material at such a point in the adjudication process, and then only after I queried matters with the society.
“This is especially the case, given the society’s previous clear and unequivocal assurances that it had already provided me with all of the in-scope information which it held.”
However, the adjudicator said he how had a “complete copy of all the recorded information held by the society which falls within the scope of the applicant’s information request”.
Mr Sowerbutts ruled that even “even with the most permissive interpretation” of what could be considered ‘regulatory information’, the material sought by RH regarding the society’s non-compliance with its voluntary FoI code did not qualify.
Furthermore, he agreed with the society that the “public interest balancing exercise” was not required, since it related only to regulatory information. Even if it had been applied, Mr Sowerbutts said it would favour withholding the material.
The only exception made by the adjudicator was the “small element of the currently withheld information”.
Mr Sowerbutts concluded that the society was correct to refuse to disclose the rest of the information to RH.