EU Court Rules Against Parliamentary Secrecy

10 June 2011

The General Court of the European Union June 7 ruled that the European Parliament should not have denied access to a sensitive report on allowances paid to parliamentarians.

The case was brought by Irish lawyer, Ciarán Toland, who sought access to a 2006 internal audit of the Parliamentary Assistance Allowance, known as the “Galvin Report.”

The report, which had been leaked in 2009, contains details of abuses in allowances paid to some unidentified members of parliament and recommendations, in order to identify flaws in the allowance system.

Parliament said premature disclosure would “seriously undermine” decision-making by Parliament and “derail debate on the reform of the system.”

Disagreeing, the court, in its judgment, found no reason to believe that decision-making would be undermined.  “However, the contested decision does not contain any tangible element which would allow the conclusion to be drawn that that risk that the decision-making process would be undermined was, on the date on which that decision was adopted, reasonably foreseeable and not purely hypothetical,” according to the decision.

The argument that the allowances were a sensitive matter and of great interest to the media “cannot constitute in itself an objective reason sufficient to justify the concern that the decision-making process would be seriously undermined, without calling into question the very principle of transparency intended by the EC Treaty.”

The court also observed that to postpone disclosure until the follow-up action had been taken “would make access to those documents dependent on an uncertain, future and possibly distant event, depending on the speed and diligence of the various authorities. Such a solution would be contrary to the objective of guaranteeing public access to documents relating to any irregularities in the management of financial interests, with the aim of giving citizens the opportunity to monitor more effectively the lawfulness of the exercise of public powers….”

Parliament could appeal the decision. Three countries – Denmark, Sweden and Finland – supported Toland.

 Toland said the case “has established that the public has a right of access to Internal Audit Reports – to which both the Commission and Parliament have up to now refused access.”

He also said: “This case has now established new rights of access to a wide range of documents by both citizens and the media. In particular, an institution will not be able to claim that political controversy is a ground to refuse access.”

Lead solicitor on the case, Tony Burke of Mason Hayes+Curran commented on the result, said, “The decision will have far-reaching consequences for improving accountability and transparency in the rights of European citizens to access reports of European Institutions.”

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