Guardian legal bid over Iraq invasion

The Government’s legal advice on invading Iraq could be made public within months following a challenge from The Guardian.

It is the second time that the paper has used lawyers to back up a
request made under the Code of Practice on Access to Government
Information.

In March, just days before a judicial review hearing at the High
Court, the Government agreed to hand over information about ministers’
conflicts of interests.

Both sets of information are now in the hands of Parliamentary
Ombudsman Ann Abraham, who will decide whether to make them public.

Guardian reporter Rob Evans first asked to see the Attorney
General’s legal advice on the war in Iraq in October. He cited the 1994
Code of Practice, which provides guidelines for government departments
to comply with information requests.

When the request was refused, he used his right under the terms of the code to ask the Parliamentary Ombudsman to investigate.

When her investigation was blocked by Downing Street, lawyers acting
for The Guardian warned the Government that she was “unlawfully and
irrationally being frustrated in the performance of her functions”.

Faced with a possible judicial review in the High Court, Downing
Street decided to back down and allow the Ombudsman to adjudicate.

Evans said: “What was outrageous about this was that Downing Street
were preventing the Ombudsman from investigating. This legal advice is
a very big issue and there’s been a lot of speculation about it. It’s a
prime candidate for what freedom of information is all about.

“It’s sad that we’ve had to take legal action to make them face up
to their responsibilities and take freedom of information seriously.

“They make great play about their commitment to open government but in practice are pretty recalcitrant.”

The Code of Practice on Access to Government Information will be
superseded by the 2000 Freedom of Information Act, which becomes law in
January. It provides legally-binding rules concerning requests for
government information but has been criticised because of the number of
exempt categories.

By Dominic Ponsford

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