Public access to documents held by the European Union's institutions is currently governed by the EC Public Access Regulation (1049/2001). The Regulation specifically requires institutions to refuse access to a document where: "disclosure would undermine the protection of… the privacy and integrity of the individual, in particular in accordance with Community legislation regarding the protection of personal data".
The recent CFI judgment concerned a request for the full minutes (including the names of all attendees) of a meeting in October 1996 between European Commission and UK government officials and representatives of a trade association of European breweries. The European Commission had refused to supply the information requested on the basis that, among other things, the information contained personal data about those who attended the meeting that must be protected.
The CFI annulled this decision. In relation to the Commission's claims in respect of personal data contained within the document, the CFI commented that the release of the names of individuals who attended the meeting to represent the participating bodies did not affect the private life of those individuals.
The CFI acknowledged the fact that the European Court of Human Rights has found that Article 8 of the ECHR (the right to respect for private life) included the right of the individual to establish and develop relations with others which may extend to professional or business activities. However, the CFI did not accept that this necessarily meant that all professional activity was therefore covered by protection afforded by Article 8. In this case, the CFI considered that the mere participation by and individual in a meeting held with a Community institution on behalf of the organisation for which they work did not fall within the sphere of that individual's private life. Therefore, the disclosure of minutes containing details of that individual's presence at the meeting could not constitute an interference with his private life.
This decision is very much in keeping with the position adopted by both the UK and Scottish Information Commissioners in respect of the treatment of information concerning the professional lives of individuals who work for, or with, public authorities under freedom of information legislation. In particular, both Commissioners have acknowledged that, in general, the threshold for releasing professional information is lower than that for releasing truly personal or sensitive information.
While the CFI's decision is undoubtedly bad news for lobbyists who are unlikely to be happy that their attendance at meetings with representatives of Community institutions may now routinely come to light, it does seem to reflect other moves within the EU towards improving public accountability. Earlier this year, a Green Paper was produced specifically regarding the Public Access to Documents regime within the EU as part of the wider European Transparency Initiative that aims to increase the transparency and accountability of the EU. That paper suggested reforms to the regime in a number of areas, such as introducing limitation on excessive or vexatious requests; increasing transparency in the legislative process; and improving the mechanisms for the dissemination of information via websites. This decision, therefore, appears to fit quite comfortably within this context.