South Lanarkshire Council loses 'pay scales' challenge
A council embroiled in a long-running equal pay dispute could face a near £200,000 legal bill over a failed bid to block information on its pay scales.
South Lanarkshire Council rejected requests for the information from equal pay campaigner Mark Irvine.
When the Scottish Information Commissioner backed his case, the council appealed unsuccessfully to the Court of Session.
Five Supreme Court judges unanimously dismissed the council's second appeal.
South Lanarkshire Council is currently involved in a legal dispute over claims it awarded extra bonuses for male workers while women on the same pay grade received nothing.Legal dispute
Any adverse settlement in the action could cost the authority millions of pounds.
In May 2010, Action 4 Equality Scotland campaigner Mr Irvine made a number of requests under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 for information from South Lanarkshire Council.
End Quote Rosemary Agnew Scottish Information Commissioner
The Supreme Court's ruling confirms the robustness of our approach and is a clear guide to how similar cases should be handled by Scottish public authorities”
He wanted to know how many of their employees in a particular post were placed at 10 particular points on the council's pay scales.
His purpose was to find out whether the council's pay gradings favoured work traditionally done by men.
Mr Irvine made it clear that he did not want to know the names of the staff concerned.
The council subsequently refused his requests on the grounds that to release such information would breach the Data Protection Act.
Mr Irvine then complained to the Scottish Information Commissioner, who investigated and decided that the information should be disclosed.
South Lanarkshire Council appealed unsuccessfully to the Inner House of the Court of Session.
Its second appeal to the UK Supreme Court was heard by Lady Hale, sitting with Lord Kerr, Lord Wilson, Lord Reed and Lord Carnwath.
In a written judgement, Lady Hale said that the court had unanimously dismissed the appeal.Legal costs
It held that the Information Commissioner was entitled to reach the conclusion that disclosure of the information should be given by the council to Mr Irvine.
The court also held that there had been no breach of the rules of natural justice when the commissioner did not copy the correspondence to the council.
The judgement also requires that South Lanarkshire Council pays the legal costs incurred by the Scottish Information Commissioner.
End Quote Councillor Eddie McAvoy South Lanarkshire Council leader
I am very disappointed at this outcome, and all the more so because we were told repeatedly by our legal advisers that our case was sound”
Welcoming the judgment, the commissioner, Rosemary Agnew, said: "I am pleased that the ruling by the Supreme Court supports our own carefully considered conclusions on this case.
"While the relationship between freedom of information and data protection law can be complex, the Supreme Court's ruling confirms the robustness of our approach and is a clear guide to how similar cases should be handled by Scottish public authorities.
"Importantly the ruling also means that the requester can, at long last, receive the information to which he is entitled."
The failed legal action is likely to cost South Lanarkshire almost £200,000 is legal bills.
The authority confirmed that it had spent about £100,000.
It will have to pay the commissioner's bill, which to date stands at £67,863, with a final legal counsel invoice still to come.
A council spokesman said the judgement was "disappointing".Serious arguments
"We have never denied this information to people with a legitimate interest in it, where it is necessary and warranted, and that's why it has been provided to those representing employees and ex-employees in tribunals," the spokesman said.
"However, we have been acting on legal advice that, if we released it to a third party, we could be in breach of the Data Protection Act by disclosing information which could be used to identify specific people and their salaries.
"Given that concern and our legal advice, it was clear that these arguments had to be heard in the highest court in the land. Indeed, the judges make it clear that they took our arguments seriously and believed our case was worth putting before them."
South Lanarkshire Council leader Eddie McAvoy added: "I am very disappointed at this outcome, and all the more so because we were told repeatedly by our legal advisers that our case was sound and that there were good grounds for the council's arguments.
"Given the judges' ruling, I have instructed officers to release this information as soon as is practical."