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Journalist wins 13-month legal fight against government secrecy

Conor Matchett 2022A journalist has won a 13-month legal battle against government bosses who fought to keep documents secret from the public.

The Scotsman has scored a “significant victory for both transparency and press freedom” after the Scottish Information Commissioner ruled in its favour following the year-long dispute with the Scottish Government.

The ICO has found Holyrood breached Freedom of Information legislation in refusing a request by the Edinburgh-based daily’s deputy political editor Conor Matchett last year.

Conor, pictured, had asked the Scottish National Party-run administration to publish any legal advice to ministers or provided by the civil service during 2020 about a possible second independence referendum in Scotland.

Officials had refused to release any information on the grounds that disclosure would breach legal professional privilege.

But Conor then took the matter to ICO Daren Fitzhenry, who has now ruled there is an “obvious” and “significant” public interest around publication of the material in question.

Conor, pictured, told HTFP: “This is a significant victory for both transparency and press freedom in Scotland.

“Legal advice is rightly usually kept secret, but on an issue as important as Scottish Independence, the public interest in whether the Scottish Government is being advised its strategy may or may not stand up in court is obvious.

“This decision is also the latest in a long line of rulings which demonstrates that the Scottish Government does not apply the public interest test appropriately, and is a fantastic demonstration of why, with FoI, it is always worth an appeal.

“Both of Scotland’s governments should welcome this decision and move to strengthen FoI given its integral role in accountability and transparency.”

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly said she will pass legislation so a second independence referendum can take place by the end of 2023, although lawyers are split over whether the Scottish Parliament has the power to pass such a law.

The ICO’s decision notice states that ministers must now disclose parts of the legal advice by 10 June, with Mr Fitzhenry concluding aspects of the legal advice on the potential referendum would fall under the same “exceptional circumstances” in which public interest outweighed legal professional privilege.

Although he accepted the “considerable, in-built public interest” in allowing ministers to receive “full unhindered legal advice”, he agreed with submissions by Conor that this was “not inalienable.”

He added that the Scottish Ministerial Code sets out there are exceptions to this convention, including when the legal advice may affect a “large number of people”.

Mr Fitzhenry wrote: “The Commissioner notes the applicant’s view that keeping legal advice relating to a second independence referendum secret actively harms accountability and scrutiny and would be counter to the public interest.

“Given the fundamental importance of Scotland’s future constitutional relationship to all individuals living in Scotland, and its fundamental importance to political and public debate at the time of the request and requirement for review, the Commissioner is satisfied that disclosing this information would significantly enhance public debate on this issue.”

In response, a Scottish Government spokesperson told The Scotsman: “We have received the decision from the Scottish Information Commissioner and are considering its terms.

“However, we are clear the Scottish Government has acted lawfully in its application of freedom of information legislation.

“There is a long-standing convention, observed by UK Governments and Scottish Governments, that government does not disclose legal advice, including whether Law Officers have or have not advised on any matter, except in exceptional circumstances.

“The content of any such advice is confidential and subject to legal professional privilege. This ensures that full and frank legal advice can be given.”