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SLAB rates to external lawyers protected from disclosure: Commissioner

12 November 2013

Rates of payment by the Scottish Legal Aid Board to its external legal advisers are protected from disclosure under the freedom of information legislation, the Scottish Information Commissioner has ruled.

Rosemary Agnew has refused an appeal by the Glasgow Bar Association, whose request for information regarding the rates used to calculate payments by SLAB for external legal advice was refused by SLAB as commercially sensitive and exempt under section 33(1)(b) of the Freedom of Information Act. SLAB did provide a breakdown per month of the amount spent over the period covered by the request.

The GBA argued to the Commissioner that as the services were being provided under a contract for a number of years following a tender process, they would not be of competitive relevance in the market; and further that there was an overriding public interest in the public knowing that SLAB was securing best value in spending public funds, and in comparing the rate with that paid to solicitors for defending members of the public against serious criminal charges.

In her decision notice, Ms Agnew accepted that "disclosure of the requested information would be likely to have a substantially prejudicial effect on the provider's business and on SLAB's ability to obtain best value from future tenders". SLAB had argued that the identity of the provider was in the public domain; it would be less likely to give an advantageous rate if that could be identified by other actual and potential clients, and in a competitive market disclosure would also confer an unfair advantage on its competitors. The Commissioner was satisfied that the information was still of sufficient commercial relevance to engage the exception and disclosure would substantially prejudice both parties.

Regarding the public interest, the Commissioner concluded that it favoured SLAB being able "to procure services competitively, to best value for the public purse and for suppliers to remain commercially viable". She added that the public interest in accountability and transparency ahd largely been met by the information disclosed by SLAB. On balance, the public interest in disclosing the remaining information was outweighed by that in maintaining the section 33(1)(b) exemption.

The decision has been posted to the Glasgow Bar Association website, and will shortly be published by the Commissioner.

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