Green/EFA group Press release, Strasbourg/Luxembourg, 13 March, 2001
Hautala vs Council on Partial Access to Documents: Council's secrecy enthusiasm totally out of proportion
Heidi Hautala MEP, Co-President of the Greens/EFA Group in the European parliament, appeared in a European Court of Justice hearing on access to documents on Tuesday, March 13. Council had appealed against a ruling by the Court of First Instance in favour of Ms Hautala. The Council was supported in the case by Spain and Hautala by Finland, Denmark, Sweden and the UK.
Council representative, Ms Jill Assaunt, said that the Council cannot be expected to implement a blanket right of information. Ms Assaunt maintained that the Council is in no way legally bound to consider partial access to any documents. The Council also insisted on its view that a document becomes a totally new one if parts of it are blanked out. At the end of the hearing, Heidi Hautala commented:
"The Council's view that a document changes completely from the initial
document is formalistic and unacceptable. This kind of argumentation seems
to imply that the Council is skating on thin ice."
The principle of partial access to documents is particularly important now since the institutions are at present considering the Commission's proposal for a regulation on openness. The proposal even refers to the Hautala case
since she won the first round in the Court of First Instance.
In 1996 Heidi Hautala put a question to the Council asking about the criteria on arms exports. In its answer, the Council referred to a report concerning the implementation of these criteria and Ms Hautala asked to see this report. The Council denied access, even after a formal application, compelling Heidi Hautala to take the matter to the Court of First Instance. This ruled in favour of Ms Hautala saying that the Council should at least
have considered partial access.
In the ECJ hearing Ms Assaunt stated that partial access may or may not appear in the regulation on public access to documents. Ms Hautala responded:
"The outcome of this case will be important. It is evident that the Council is after a right for consideration which is completely out of proportion. If a large document has one sentence that is to be kept confidential, it is unacceptable for the whole document to be left undisclosed."
Ms Hautala was represented by Dutch attorney Mr Onno W. Brouwer who emphasised that the Council is legally bound to consider partial access with respect to every application. Brower shared the view of the Finnish government that since the Council has already applied partial access in many cases it must do so in every case if the citizens are to be treated equally. The administrative burden of doing this will be of no importance since the Council has to go through the requested document anyway to screen if it includes confidential elements. Ms Hautala concluded:
"I am very pleased that many of the governments have intervened on my behalf. They too regard access to documents to be a democratic right of the citizens. Access to documents is the only guarantee for the citizens to be able to exercise control on the decision making of governments. It is not enough if governments control governments."
For further information please contact:
Heidi Hautala: +358-(0)-50-60076 or
Green/ EFA group in the European Parliament
Tel: (Bxl) +32 2 284 41665 / (Str) + 33 3 88172936
Mobile: +32 497 480 255
Fax: (Bxl) +32 2 2844944 / (Str) + 33 3 88241196
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