The Law Society’s freedom of information (FoI) adjudicator has criticised the Solicitor Regulation Authority (SRA) for giving an “unfortunate impression” that it is not committed to transparency because of the way it handled disclosure requests relating to struck-off solicitor Alan Blacker.
Adjudicator Adam Sowerbutts said the regulator was wrong to rely on a blanket exemption under section 32 of the Freedom of Information Act to reject the requests – given that it is not actually part of the society’s FoI code.
The Law Society is not subject to the Act but runs an FoI scheme along similar lines.
The SRA took over the handling of its own information requests from the Law Society at the start of 2016.
Mr Sowerbutts said the SRA had shown a “visible” commitment to FoI, continuing: “It has received over a hundred such requests in that time, only a tiny fraction of which have come before me for adjudication.
“Whilst that is little comfort to those whose requests are refused and who subsequently seek an adjudication, the SRA is clearly doing something right in its overall handling of information requests; it appears that the overwhelming majority of requestors are satisfied (or at least not unduly dissatisfied) with the response and the extent of disclosure they receive
“Consequently the SRA’s reliance on section 32 gives an unfortunate impression.”
He said that whilst information can and should be withheld when it was appropriate and necessary, “it should not be withheld for the sake of it, nor should access be refused for the wrong reasons”.
“Given the SRA’s stated commitment to transparency, its starting point in any case should be to consider what information it can reasonably disclose and, where possible, to facilitate that disclosure.”
Mr Sowerbutts said section 32 provided an ‘absolute’ exemption from disclosure for court records.
The SRA argued that requests made by three applicants for the disclosure of documents relating to Mr Blacker’s disciplinary hearing last summer, could be rejected under this exemption.
However, Mr Sowerbutts said section 32 was not a “complete bar to disclosure of court documents”, but was intended to ensure that disclosure took place through “existing, court-controlled mechanisms”.
In this case, Mr Sowerbutts said “such mechanisms do not appear to exist”.
He directed the SRA to “go the extra mile” by either disclosing the information requested or issuing the applicants with fresh refusal notices that cited an appropriate exemption and providing “full and reasoned arguments” as to why the public interest favoured withholding the documents.
Mr Sowerbutts said the SRA should “if necessary proactively” seek the views of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) on disclosure when making its own decision.
It is the third time that the adjudicator has had to deal with issues involving Mr Blacker.
Last summer, the SDT had found that of the allegations made by the SRA against Mr Blacker were proven, including dishonesty, and he was struck off. The High Court rejected Mr Blacker’s appeal against last week.
A spokesman for the SRA said the regulator had issued fresh refusal notices to the FoI applicants last week, “along the lines the adjudicator directed”, asked the SDT for its views and “informed the applicants as such”.