R (Veolia ES Ltd) v Nottinghamshire County Council (Audit Commission and Shlomo Dowen (represented by Friends of the Earth)) as Interested Parties

06 Oct 2009

[2009] EWHC 2382 (Admin)

A significant public law case was handed down on 1 October 2009, concerning the competing interests of, on the one hand, public access to information about the accounts of public bodies and, on the other, the rights of third parties to commercial confidentiality. The judgment contains an extensive survey of the authorities concerning the scope of electors’ rights under the Audit Commission Act 1998.

In accordance with the 1998 Act, the Council notified the public that “the accounts to be audited and all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts relating to them” were to be open for inspection for a four week period. Mr Dowen was a local elector and environmental campaigner, who made a request under section 15 of the Audit Commission Act 1998, for information relating to a waste management contract entered into between the Council and its contractor, Veolia. The Council determined, on advice, that it was obliged to disclose certain information pursuant to the Act.

Veolia applied for judicial review of the Council’s decision, asserting that certain pricing formulae contained in the contract and the invoices it submitted constituted commercially confidential data. It contended that the information is valuable to commercial competitors and to its sub-contractors and that if the information entered the public domain it would damage its ability to compete in bids with other local authorities and it would impair its ability to hold down sub-contract prices in the contract.

Cranston J held that the Council had correctly decided to provide the information sought, and that the exceptions to disclosure under section 15 did not cover Veolia’s claim of commercial confidentiality.

Ian Rogers represented the Council.

To view the judgment, please click here.

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Ian Rogers