SLCC Chair Jane Irvine secretly lobbied FOI Commissioner’s office to produce favourable investigation results. DOCUMENTS REVEALING A SECRET WORLD of public bodies directly lobbying the Freedom of Information Commissioner Kevin Dunion and his staff to produce favourable outcomes against FOI requests from the media, amid expectations of transparency & public accountability through the use of FOI legislation, have exposed attempts by Jane Irvine, the Chair of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission to pressure the Information Commissioner’s office over the results of several critical investigations carried out into FOI appeals against the SLCC’s refusal to disclose information on its now highly questionable role of investigating complaints against Scotland’s legal profession.
Scotland’s Information Commissioner Kevin Dunion’s office was pressured by SLCC. The controversial cases being investigated by the Information Commissioner which provoked such a storm at the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission’s headquarters at the Stamp Office, Edinburgh, eventually leading to demands of direct meetings between the SLCC Chair, Jane Irvine & FOI Chief Kevin Dunion, related to heavily censored Board meetings minutes of the SLCC during 2008, when the law complaints quango was publicly funded to the tune of a whopping £2 million while its Board Members claimed a staggering £130,000 in expenses from the public purse, and also included issues surrounding the SLCC’s Master Policy research, carried out in mid-2009 which linked client suicides to claims against the Law Society’s infamous Master Policy insurance scheme, which is supposed, but fails to compensate victims of ‘crooked lawyers’.
Emails from SLCC Chair Jane Irvine reveals FOI staff were badgered by the law complaints chief to produce favourable outcomes so the SLCC could prevent appeals against non-disclosure. Details contained in a slew of emails between the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission & the FOI Commissioner’s staff show Jane Irvine, the SLCC’s Chair was desperate to ensure Mr Dunion’s staff produced favourable outcomes to enable the law complaints quango to prevent the media appealing to the FOI Commissioner’s office each time the SLCC refused to disclose information being requested. Jane Irvine said in her email : “We have asked you about this case. I will however have to keep raising it with anyone dealing with our appeals. We are keen that the Commissioner appreciates the link between the cases. In short terms, your Decision on this first appeal is vital in either setting fundamental precedents for us, pointing to a need to appeal or affecting the way we operate and so pushing up our budget costs which we need to be setting now.”
Ms Irvine’s email concluded, leaving little doubt she wanted Mr Dunion’s staff to produce a favourable investigation result, darkly suggesting to Mr Dunion’s staff if the investigation fell in favour of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, all further freedom of information appeals to the SLCC by the media or members of the public could be dealt with or thrown out by the SLCC itself instead of being investigated by the Information Commissioner’s office. Jane Irvine stated : “Put very simply if we had the answer on your case we might be able to halt the flow of appeals to you !”
The FOI Commissioner’s staff reminded the SLCC Chair in their reply each appeal to Mr Dunion is considered on a case by case basis. Responses from Mr Dunion’s staff to Jane Irvine’s desperate bid to interfere in their investigation appear to show Ms Irvine being reminded on how cases are investigated. The reply from Mr Dunion’s office states : “I am required to consider each redaction in turn and consider each exemption applied to this information. this has been a time consuming process … However, I must also advise you, noting your comments regarding the importance of this case, that each application considered by the Commissioner is treated on a case-by-case basis and therefore the conclusions reached in this case may not be the same for similar information in a different set of circumstances.”
Further emails reveal the SLCC Chair put extra pressure on investigating FOI staff to produce favourable outcomes, citing high costs to the SLCC of dealing with information requests. In a blistering response to the email from the Information Commissioner’s staff, Jane Irvine, the SLCC Chair rebuked Mr Dunion’s staff for failing to produce a desired outcome for the SLCC, as information requests had allegedly incurred considerable costs to the law complaints quango. Ms Irvine stated in her email : “I’m very aware of the necessity to look at each redaction individually & of the time it takes! I’m also aware that each case and issue is to be considered individually. Equally I am very that we Know what tramlines we’re working within. ****** has caused us to incur considerable costs as have his colleagues this year and our overall FOI case load shows no signs of reducing. Under current law we simply have no option other than to bear the very high costs.”
A further email from Jane Irvine to the Information Commissioner’s staff also alleged the SLCC had “involved legal advisors” in compiling FOI disclosures & responses to the Information Commissioner’s office.
However things were to take a more direct turn as papers now reveal Jane Irvine insisted on a meeting with the Information Commissioner over his office’s investigations of the SLCC’s FOI disclosures.
SLCC Chair Jane Irvine, not content with badgering the Information Commissioner’s staff, lobbied the FOI Commissioner himself in a meeting ‘to discuss’ his office’s investigations of the SLCC. A letter only now released from Mr Dunion’s office portrays a desperate situation at the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission in March 2010, provoking the SLCC Chair, Jane Irvine, accompanied by the SLCC’s Acting Chief Executive Rosemary Agnew to meet the Information Commissioner Mr Dunion to lobby for the SLCC’s position with regard to the investigations being carried out by Mr Dunion’s staff. The letter read : “You may recall when we met on 19 March 2010; we discussed the three appeals currently with your office. I think I emphasised that the SLCC was keen to learn of your conclusions. We have chased since and were last told they would be with us this week. I am disappointed they have not arrived and this is because as we explained to you when we met, the outcome of the appeals could significantly affect how we deal with future FOI requests and might also have a knock-on effect to our business. I should be grateful if you could let me know when I can expect to receive your decisions.”
A legal insider studying the papers released from the Information Commissioner’s office was of the opinion the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission had attempted to pressure the Information Commissioner and his staff for outcomes of their investigations which would be favourable to the SLCC.
He said : “The wording of the letters from Jane Irvine to the Information Commissioner and his staff should leave no one in any doubt the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission are determined to put a stop to Freedom of Information requests which appear to have revealed significant shortcomings at the SLCC.”
He continued : “Anyone reading the letters from Ms Irvine to the Information Commissioner and his staff could easily conclude there was an atmosphere of undue pressure put on Mr Dunion and his team by Ms Irvine, to come to conclusions which favour the SLCC while disadvantaging those making Freedom of Information requests or appeals to the SLCC.”
SLCC now want to handle investigations into FOI appeals against themselves ? A law reform campaigner who has made Freedom of Information requests to the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission said the letters between Jane Irvine & Mr Dunion’s staff amounted to a clear attempt to ensure the investigation of the appeal went the SLCC’s way. He said : “From the sounds of Jane Irvine’s emails & letters it looks like she wants to do the investigating of the FOI appeal and reach the conclusion herself instead of letting Mr Dunion and his staff do their job. This is not how Freedom of Information is supposed to work, is it ?”
A Scottish Government insider commented on the situation, saying : “We all know the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission have been caught out several times with information obtained under FOI legislation. However, if this contact with the Information Commissioner’s office is the SLCC’s attempt to cover up their own failures which have come to light through the use of FOI, it is an entirely inappropriate way to go about it.”
He continued : “If the SLCC want to avoid an unduly high workload on FOI requests & appeals, I would suggest they become more open and publish more of what they do rather than attempting to blame Freedom of Information for their own failures and poor reputation.”
Blacked out FOIs are preferred by the SLCC. The Scottish Legal Complaints Commission have been ‘caught out’ several times with information obtained under Freedom of Information legislation, among those instances, several of which I have reported earlier, such as : MacAskill’s SLCC lied over secret meetings with Law Society & Marsh as quango announces £15k ‘study’ into master policy & guarantee fund, also here : Officials pull FOI disclosures as Guarantee Fund “chancer” emails show Law Society anti-client bias has migrated to Legal Complaints Commission, here : Fresh appointments sleaze at Scottish Legal Complaints Commission as FOIs reveal protests against independent oversight of board member recruitment & here : Censorship & ‘frequent flyers’ at Scottish Legal Complaints Commission reveal attempt to write off consumers evidence in Master Policy report. More can be found HERE
The Scottish Legal Complaints Commission and its Chair, Jane Irvine, refused to give any comment or explanation for their attempt to lobby the Information Commissioner on the investigations involving the SLCC. However, a legal insider close to the law complaints quango claimed late last night the SLCC had now embarked on “a policy to delay, prevaricate and refuse further Freedom of Information requests it considered may be damaging to its operations”.
This latest claim seems to support a recent slew of decisions by the SLCC to intimidate journalists making requests for information as to whether they are requesting it on their own behalf or for someone else.
Curiously, the SLCC is also now operating a policy of terming many FOI requests as “vexatious” even if the subject matter requested has only come to light through the Information Commissioner’s own investigations. However, this latest attempt by the SLCC to stall the flow of information into the public arena will doubtless only result in more appeals to the Information Commissioner’s office, something the SLCC Chair, Jane Irvine, was keen to prevent as she expressed in her emails to Mr Dunion’s office.
Given we are now at the stage where the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission feels it must manipulate Freedom of Information legislation to protect its secrets, it must now lose any lingering trust of consumers forced to approach it over complaints against the legal profession.
It is now time to call time on the grave mistake the SLCC has turned out to be, and give Scots consumers the level of protection which only a fully independent regulator of legal services can provide.