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Supreme Court allows Prince Charles’s government letters to be released

The Supreme Court has today ruled that letters sent by The Prince of Wales to government ministers can be published.

The hand-down of the judgement, which was delivered just after 09:45 GMT, ends a nine-year legal battle between The Guardian and the government.

The Court was asked to decide whether Dominic Grieve acted unlawfully when he prevented their publication in 2012 as Attorney General.

It subsequently dismissed his appeal by a majority of five to two, stating that he was “not entitled to issue a certificate under section 53 FOIA 2000 in the manner that he did and therefore that the Certificate was invalid.”

Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court, concluded that section 53 “does not permit the Attorney General to override a decision of a judicial tribunal or court by issuing a certificate merely because he, a member of the executive, considering the same facts and arguments, takes a different view from that taken by the tribunal or court.”

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The Prince of Wales wrote to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Department of Health, the Department for Children, the Department for Education, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Northern Ireland Office and the Cabinet Office between September 2004 and April 2005.

Prince Charles wrote 30 letters to seven government departments between 1 September 2004 and 1 April 2005. The government will now prepare 27 of these for publication, a process that will take up to 30 days.

Following this morning’s judgment, Clarence House said that the issue was “a matter for the government”, adding that they were “disappointed the principle of privacy has not been upheld.”

It was a sentiment echoed by Prime Minister, David Cameron who expressed his own disappointment at the court’s decision.

In a statement, he added: “Our FOI laws specifically include the option of a governmental veto, which we exercised in this case for a reason. If the legislation does not make Parliament’s intention for the veto clear enough, then we will need to make it clearer.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) 2000 states:

“Any person making a request for information to a public authority is entitled—

(a) to be informed in writing by the public authority whether it holds information of the description specified in the request, and

(b) if that is the case, to have that information communicated to him.”

There are a number of exemptions to the act – some classed as absolute and others are qualified (i.e. they are subject to the test that “in all the circumstances of the case, the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information”).

Communications with Her Majesty, other members of the Royal Family or the Royal Household were provided with a qualified exemption until 19 January 2011 when the rules were changed to provide an absolute exemption over such communications.

Today’s ruling is a victory for The Guardian, which has been “pressing” the government to release the correspondence for nine years. Rob Evans, a journalist for the newspaper, began the recent strong of legal battles after his initial FOI request was rejected in 2010.

The Guardian‘s out-going editor, Alan Rusbridger, said he was “delighted” with the ruling.

“The government wasted hundreds of thousands of pounds trying to cover up these letters, admitting their publication would ‘seriously damage’ perceptions of the prince’s political neutrality,” he said.

“Now they must publish them so that the public can make their own judgment.

“This is a good day for transparency in government and shows how essential it is to have a fully independent judiciary and free press.”

The full judgement by the Supreme Court is available online.

Image Credit: Ra’ed Qutena

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