Are Personal Notes Taken at a Council Meeting Disclosable?

In William Chapman v Information Commissioner and Duddon Parish Council, the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights) ruled that personal notes taken by attendees at a meeting concerning council business discussions should have been disclosed under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR).

Duddon Parish Council held a meeting to discuss an allotment site and associated access issues where representatives from the Council attended, as well as representatives from the Lake District National Park Authority and Cumbria County Council. The appellant made a request to the Council for copies of notes during the meeting, any subsequent report produced and a report presented at the meeting. The Council did not provide the information on the basis that it was not held.

Consequently, the appellant complained to the Information Commissioner who concluded that the council had complied with the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (it was later confirmed by the FTT(IR) that the correct law to follow was the EIR) and that apart from a map the council had already disclosed to the appellant, no further information was held.

Following the appellant’s further appeal, the FTT(IR) dismissed the council’s statement that any notes taken by the individuals at the meeting had been for their own personal use including those of the Council’s solicitor and the parish clerk.

The FTT(IR) said that the council only focused on “official documents” produced during quorate council meetings, which was deemed to be too narrow in scope. As there wasn’t a sufficient number of councillors to constitute the quorum required, the Council considered the meeting to be an informal one. However, the meeting was strongly linked to council activity and the request was not limited to official council meetings and documents. The attempt of excluding notes of meetings by claiming that they were for personal use was regarded to be an inappropriate way of withholding information outside the ambit of the EIR.

It was held that the notes consisting of information on the renewal of a lease of an allotment field covered the scope of regulations 2(1)(c) and 3(2) of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR) and should have been disclosed.

This case is an important one as it highlights how personal or “unofficial” notes taken during council meetings may still fall within the scope of the EIR if they bear a connection with Council activity. As such any public authority who receives such a request should initially conduct a careful search to determine what information it holds for the purposes of FOIA or EIR and then go on to look at whether that information can be disclosed or if a relevant exemption applies.

Forbes Solicitors regularly provide advice to a range of public authorities in relation to the applicability of EIR as well as advice in relation to the Data Protection Act 1998, the FOIA and the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations. If you have any questions, please contact Daniel Milnes.

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