Time limit for prosecution of offences under section 77 of the FOI Act

The Information Commissioner’s office statement that the university at the centre of the ‘climategate’ email scandal did not deal with FOI requests as it should have done under the legislation has received a lot of media attention. Section 77 of the Act makes it an offence for any person to deliberately destroy, alter or conceal a record after it has been requested with the intention of preventing its disclosure. The offence is triable only in the magistrate’s court. However, under section 127(1) of the Magistrates Court Act 1980, proceedings for all such offences must be brought within 6 months of the offence occurring.

In a statement on the University of East Anglia case, the Deputy Information Commissioner Graham Smith said:

“The FOI Act makes it an offence for public authorities to act so as to prevent intentionally the disclosure of requested information. Mr Holland’s FOI requests were submitted in 2007/8, but it has only recently come to light that they were not dealt with in accordance with the Act. The legislation requires action within six months of the offence taking place, so by the time the action came to light the opportunity to consider a prosecution was long gone.”

This problem came to the Campaign for Freedom of Information’s attention last year. It was clear that the offence could rarely be detected in time for a prosecution to be brought. It can take several months before an authority responds to a request and carries out the internal review which is necessary before a complaint can be made to the ICO. Once complaints were made, it took on average 8 months before the ICO investigation even began, according to a report we published in July 2009. This means it would usually be impossible for the ICO to detect an offence within 6 months of it occurring.

The Campaign therefore drafted a proposed amendment to section 77 to extend the time limit for prosecutions. The amendment was identical to provisions already found in several other statues, such as the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and the Theft Act (as amended by the Vehicles (Crime) Act 2001), where the government itself had decided to extend the 6 month limit for prosecutions. More recently, in 2008, the Building Regulations were amended following a public consultation, as local authorities had maintained that the 6 month period did not allow prosecutions to be brought where a breach of the regulations only came to light after completion of the building work or where remediation of the work had been promised but not carried out.

The proposed amendment would have allowed a prosecution to be brought within 6 months of the evidence of the offence coming to the Commissioner’s knowledge, rather than within 6 months of the offence being committed. The amendment was tabled to the Coroners and Justice Bill by Lord Dubs. However, the government rejected this opportunity to close the obvious loophole – though it was clear then that if an authority deliberately shredded records it would almost certainly avoid punishment.

Responding to the amendment, the minister Lord Bach said:

“The Freedom of Information Act 2000 came into force only in 2005, and I have to tell my noble friend that we have no evidence at present that the current six-month time limit presents a systemic problem for the Information Commissioner or any other prosecutor in taking action under Section 77. However, I shall say this, which I hope will give my noble friend some comfort. We will listen to the views of the Information Commissioner and other interested parties on this point, and if there is evidence that the current legislation is causing systemic difficulties, we will look for ways to address the matter, if necessary by means of an alternative legislative vehicle in future. However, I cannot go further than that today on behalf of the Government.”

You can read the full debate on the amendment is here (debate on amendment 205, starts column 1569)

UPDATE below added on 2 February 2010:

A number of comments on other websites have suggested that a prosecution could be brought under section 77 of the FOI Act even if it was more than 6 months after the offence had been committed.

Section 127(1) of the Magistrates Court Act states that ““a magistrates’ court shall not try an information or hear a complaint unless the information was laid, or the complaint made, within 6 months from the time when the offence was committed, or the matter of complaint arose.”

The question is: does this mean that a prosecuting authority can initiate a prosecution either within 6 months of the offence occurring or within 6 months of a “complaint” about this matter being made?

Section 127(1) of the Magistrates Court Act appears to be referring to two different types of proceedings, proceedings for an offence and proceedings which involve the making of a complaint to the court. We do not think they should be seen as two different ways of referring to the same potential prosecution.

An example of proceedings for a “complaint” can be found in section 82 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 which states:

“A magistrates’ court may act under this section on a complaint made by any person on the ground that he is aggrieved by the existence of a statutory nuisance.”

This type of proceeding would have to be brought within 6 months from the date when “the matter of the complaint arose”.

The “date on which the matter of the complaint arose” does not seem to refer to the date on which the complaint was made, but to the date of the events which led to the complaint.

This seems clear if you strip out the references to an “offence” in section 127(1) but keep those which refer to a complaint. The section then reads:

“a magistrates’ court shall not… hear a complaint unless …the complaint [was] made, within 6 months from the time when…the matter of complaint arose.”

That is not saying that the court must hear the complaint within 6 months of the complaint being made but within 6 months of the matter complained about occurring. In relation to a complaint about statutory nuisance under the Environmental Protection Act, the court would have to deal with the matter within 6 months of the nuisance occurring.

This suggests that what section 127(1) means is that (a) where proceedings for an offence are brought, they must take place within 6 months of the offence occurring and (b) where proceedings relating to a complaint are brought, they must take place within 6 months of the events which are complained about.

Many laws other than the FOI Act have been amended to extend this 6 month limit. None of those amendments would have been necessary if section 127(1) of the Magistrates Court Act already allowed a prosecution to be brought either within 6 months of the offence occurring or within 6 months of it coming to light.

One recent example are the Building Regulations. In July 2007, the Department of Communities and Local Government issued a consultation paper seeking views on whether the 6 month limit should be extended in relation to these regulations. The paper, entitled “Longer time limits for prosecution of breaches of Building Regulations” said:

“2.4. Because prosecutions must be brought in a magistrates’ court, they must comply with the rules relating to such courts. Currently, section 127(1) of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 requires that any prosecution in a magistrates’ court must be brought within 6 months of the date the offence was committed. Consequently, local authorities must bring prosecutions under section 35 of the Building Act for breaches of building regulations within 6 months of completion of the offending work. Representations have been received from representatives of local authorities and others that this can operate as an obstacle to effective enforcement, given that there can be latent breaches or those discovered after the expiry of the 6 months’ time limit. Such a regime can be difficult to administer when the pressure of normal building control work can crowd out resources for prosecution.”

Later the consultation paper says:

“Organisations representing local authorities have made repeated representations in recent years about the effect that the current time limits have on their ability to pursue non-compliance. With the 6 month time limit for starting proceedings at magistrates’ courts running from the date of the offence, i.e. the completion of the offending works, and late emergence of (what may not be obvious) building defects, this can easily eat into the time that local authority prosecutors need to prepare an effective case. As a result, cases of non compliance can escape prosecution.”

Following this consultation, the Building Regulations were amended by The Building (Amendment) Regulations 2008. The new regulations allow a prosecution to be brought within 2 years of the offence being committed, provided this was within 6 months of the prosecuting authority learning about the offence. Clearly, this change would not have been needed if section 127(1) already had the wider meaning that some have suggested.

In July 2009 the Campaign for Freedom of Information drafted an amendment, which Lord Dubs attempted to make to the Coroners and Justice Bill. This would have amended the Freedom of Information Act to allow a section 77 prosecution to be brought within 3 years of the offence being committed, provided it was within 6 months of the ICO obtaining evidence of the offence. The Information Commissioners Office supported this amendment.

The government did not accept the amendment because – it claimed – there was no evidence that the 6 month limit was causing systemic problems. It did say that if such evidence arose, it would look for ways to put the matter right, and if necessary amend the FOI Act. If the government accepted that the 6 month limit only ran from the time when the ICO became aware of the offence, it would have said the amendment was unnecessary for that reason.

That has also tended to confirm that section 127(1) does not at present allow a prosecution to be brought more than 6 months after the offence itself has occurred, and that the FOI Act should be amended so that prosecutions can be brought after that 6 month period is over.

In the Sunday Telegraph on January 30 2010, Christopher Booker suggested that a prosecution for conspiracy to commit an offence under s 77 of the FOI Act could be brought under the Criminal Law Act 1977, even if the 6 month period had expired.

However, it appears that any proceedings for conspiracy to commit an offence would be subject to the same time limits as those applying to the offence itself. Section 4(4) of the 1977 Act states:

“Where (a) an offence has been committed in pursuance of any agreement; and (b) proceedings may not be instituted for that offence because any time limit applicable to the institution of any such proceedings has expired, proceedings under section 1 above for conspiracy to commit that offence shall not be instituted against any person on the basis of that agreement.”

This suggests that, even if a conspiracy charge were possible, it would not provide a way round the problem created by the 6 month limit on prosecutions in the Magistrates Court Act.

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