UK Supreme Court require government to release Prince Charles 'black spider' letters

Friday, March 27, 2015

Prince Charles
Image: Dan Marsh.

The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom have concluded yesterday that the government must release a series of 27 letters sent by Prince Charles to government ministers and that attempts to prevent their publication under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 have been unlawful.

The letters were sent to ministers of the previous Labour government in the years of 2004 and 2005 and contain advocacy that has been described as "particularly frank". The Guardian newspaper have been attempting to have these letters released using freedom of information legislation for ten years.

Dominic Grieve
Image: Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

In 2012, the Attorney General Dominic Grieve blocked the publication of the letters despite a ruling from the information tribunal that the release of the letters is in the public interest. Grieve's statement at the time argued Prince Charles' correspondence was "of very considerable practical benefit" to his "preparations for kingship" as "such correspondence and dialogue will assist him in fulfilling his duties". Grieve went on to argue correspondence of this nature "must be under conditions of confidentiality" otherwise both the Prince and government ministers "will feel seriously inhibited from exchanging views candidly and frankly". The statement from Grieve asserts "The Prince of Wales is party-political neutral" and "it is highly important that he is not considered by the public to favour one political party or another", but that if the letters were released there would be the risk he would be "viewed by others as disagreeing with government policy" and "such perception would be seriously damaging to his role as future Monarch, because if he forfeits his position of political neutrality as heir to the Throne, he cannot easily recover it when he is King."

Lord Neuberger, who gave the opinion of the majority of the court.
Image: National Assembly for Wales.

Lord Neuberger, in giving the majority decision of the court, stated the Attorney General could not veto the release "merely because he, a member of the executive, considering the same facts and arguments, takes a different view from that taken by the tribunal or court". Neuberger said the legislation's veto power did not go so far as to "enable a member of the executive to over-ride a judicial decision" and that the Attorney General "proceeded on the basis of findings which differed radically from those made by the upper tribunal without real or adequate explanation."

Appeal judges had subsequently ruled this veto on the part of the Attorney General to be unlawful, and the further appeal by the government to the Supreme Court has been unsuccessful. The government is required to release the documents within 30 days, although it is possible some of the contents may be redacted.

A spokeswoman for the Prince of Wales stated the ruling is "a matter for the Government" but that the Prince is "disappointed the principle of privacy has not been upheld."

Prime Minister David Cameron said the decision was "disappointing": "This is about the principle that senior members of the Royal Family are able to express their views to government confidentially. I think most people would agree this is fair enough."

A spokeswoman for Cameron elaborated: "The prime minister has been very clear this morning it is a deeply disappointing judgment. He doesn't agree with it. He thinks what’s at stake here is an important principle about the ability of senior members of the royal family to express their views to government confidentially. He thinks that’s a principle that we should uphold. So while we have taken steps in this parliament to strengthen the ability to do that through the FOI act, if there needs to be more done to make that clear, then the prime minister is clear those steps should happen in the next parliament."

The legislation was already amended in 2010 to make it so that correspondence and other matters related to the Royal family are exempt from further freedom of information requests. Graham Smith, from Republic, which campaigns for an elected head of state, argues there needs to be greater transparency over the Royal Family's affairs: "The court has defended democratic principles over the interests of the royal family and that needs to be enshrined in law. David Cameron’s response is worrying because he says he wants to tighten up the veto."

The Labour MP Paul Flynn raised the possibility the ruling might have consequences for Charles' suitability to be King: "If there are serious questions about the suitability of Prince Charles as a monarch there could be a question in the public mind about whether to skip a generation. The attorney general already said the main justification for keeping the letters secret was they would hinder Charles's ability to be a successful monarch."