The Information Tribunal has ruled in favour of the Serious Fraud Office in an appeal under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 regarding disclosure of its Equitable Life investigation files.
In 2005 the SFO decided it would not proceed with its investigation into the collapse of Equitable Life. A disappointed policy-holder, Mr Wynn, subsequently requested the department’s papers under FOIA but these were withheld in reliance on a number of exemptions. The Information Commissioner later ordered disclosure of an internal vetting note explaining the SFO decision but supported non-disclosure of the remaining material. Following an appeal by Mr Wynn, a decision has now been reached by the Information Tribunal.
The key question was whether the public interest in disclosure was outweighed by the public interest in protecting the confidentiality of SFO’s investigative processes. Oliver Sanders and Matthew Flinn presented the SFO argument that disclosure would damage this confidentiality and thereby the department’s ability to obtain third party information and cooperation. Whilst acknowledging that the large scale of the collapse meant the case was in some ways exceptional, the Tribunal accepted the SFO’s argument and upheld its refusal to give disclosure. The decision may be relevant in the context of FOIA requests made to various other law enforcement bodies, including the police and CPS.