UK

Decision to block Prince Charles's letters challenged

  • 24 February 2014
  • From the section UK
Prince Charles
The Prince of Wales's letters were sent to ministers in seven government departments

A move by the government to block the release of letters from Prince of Wales to ministers are being challenged in the Court of Appeal.

Attorney-General Dominic Grieve acted unlawfully by overriding a tribunal decision allowing public disclosure, Guardian journalist Rob Evans claims.

The tribunal ruled in September 2012 that the letters could be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act.

But Mr Grieve later issued a certificate to stop publication.

The government departments concerned did not appeal against the decision of the tribunal, led by High Court judge Mr Justice Walker.

But the attorney general, the government's principal legal adviser, issued a certificate under Section 53 of the Freedom of Information Act, which rendered the tribunal decision ineffective.

Mr Grieve said he believed the departments had a lawful right to refuse public disclosure of the letters, because the correspondence took place as part of the prince's "preparation for becoming king".

The attorney general contended that releasing the letters could potentially damage the principle of the heir to the throne being politically neutral, thereby undermining his ability to fulfil his duties when king.

'Reasonable grounds'

Appearing for Mr Evans at the Court of Appeal on Monday, Dinah Rose QC asked the three judges to quash Mr Grieve's decision that trumped the tribunal ruling.

She said Mr Grieve was wrong on a number of grounds involving both domestic and European law.

"In what circumstances can it be said there are reasonable grounds on which the attorney general may form an opinion as to the lawfulness of the conduct of a government department, which is different from the judgment given by a superior court of record?" Ms Rose asked.

She added: "In this case, did the Attorney General in fact show reasonable grounds for forming his opinion? We submit he did not."

Mr Evans had applied to see a number of written communications between Prince Charles and various ministers between September 2004 and April 2005.

He says he wants to expose "the way the heir to the throne seeks to influence government ministers even though he holds no elected position".

Dominic Grieve says he had a lawful right to veto a tribunal decision on releasing the letters

An initial refusal to disclose the letters was upheld by the Information Commissioner.

But the Guardian journalist won the tribunal decision to overturn the commissioner's ruling.

The tribunal judges said Mr Evans was entitled to see "advocacy correspondence" from Prince Charles, which was described as letters he had written to ministers urging them to advance the work of charities.

Veto 'was lawful'

The attorney general's decision to override the tribunal ruling was upheld in the High Court last July.

Three judges, led by the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, ruled Mr Grieve's use of the veto was lawful.

They said the attorney general had grounds for deciding it was "an exceptional case meriting use of the ministerial veto to prevent disclosure and to safeguard the public interest".

The seven government departments the prince wrote to were Business, Innovation and Skills; Health; Children, Schools and Families [now the Department for Education]; Culture, Media and Sport; Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; the Northern Ireland Office; and the Cabinet Office.

The appeal hearing, which is before the Master of the Rolls Lord Dyson, Lord Justice Richards and Lord Justice Pitchford, is expected to last at least two days.

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