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Prince Charles government letters judgement set to be handed down by Supreme Court

The UK Supreme Court has today confirmed that it will hand down judgement next Thursday on whether the contents of letters sent between The Prince of Wales and government ministers should be revealed to the public.

Prince Charles wrote a series of letters to seven government departments between 1 September 2004 and 1 April 2005.

The Prince wrote the letters by hand before sending them to be typed up. It was after the letters were returned to Charles to sign that he would often add additional comments in flowing black across the page, using underlining and exclamation marks.

These comments and his distinctive handwriting gave the letters their nickname: ‘black spider memos’.

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.

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.

Rob Evans, a Guardian journalist, applied to see the content of the letters in 2010. His initial requests, made under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Environmental Information Regulations Act 2004, were refused by the Departments concerned – a decision which was later upheld by the Information Commissioner.

The Freedom of Information Act 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.

It is, however, understood that the original ‘qualified exemption’ applies in the case of the Prince’s letters.

Following the initial refusal, Mr Evans appealed to the First-Tier Tribunal before proceedings were transferred to the Upper Tribunal (UT). The UT, equivalent to a High Court, ordered that  “advocacy correspondence” should be disclosed in 27 of the 30 letters.

“Advocacy correspondence” is correspondence in which The Prince of Wales advocated certain causes which were of particular interest to him.

Several legal decisions have been taken since the UT’s ruling was made:

  • The seven government departments concerned did not appeal but Dominic Grieve, the-then Attorney General, imposed a ministerial veto
  • In March 2014, three Court of Appeal judges unanimously ruled that Mr Grieve had “no good reason” for using the veto
  • Seven justices at the Supreme Court in London then heard a challenge by the current Attorney General, Jeremy Wright QC, against the Court of Appeal ruling

Dominic Grieve, explaining his use of the veto in 2012, said that any perception that Charles had disagreed with the then Labour government “would be seriously damaging to his role as future monarch because if he forfeits his position of political neutrality as heir to the throne, he cannot easily recover it when he is king”.

The Guardian has previously said that it has been “pressing the government” to reveal the content of the letters, calling for transparency.

The newspaper’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, said after the Court of Appeal ruling: “…if the Prince of Wales is going to try to influence public policy in a particularly frank way then I don’t think he is acting as a private citizen and therefore, like any other lobby group, there ought to be transparency about what he’s trying to do.”

The ruling by the Supreme Court will be delivered on Thursday 26 March at 09:45 GMT in Courtroom 1 and will be the final step in the legal process.

Image Credit: Dan Marsh

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