The 'black spider' memos: Government’s last-ditch bid to keep Prince Charles’ letters secret

It is nine years since the first request to see the letters

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The Independent Online

A Government minister behaved lawfully when he overturned a ruling by judges and halted the publication of letters written by Prince Charles to his predecessors, the highest court in Britain was told.

Nine years after the so-called “black spider” memos written by the heir to the throne to Labour ministers were first requested by a journalist, the Supreme Court has begun to hear the latest round in attempts to bring the prince’s lobbying of Government into the public domain.

The Court of Appeal ruled earlier this year that Dominic Grieve QC had had “no good reason” to prevent the letters being made public when as Attorney General he blocked an order from three judges on an independent tribunal ordering their release.

At the start of a two-day hearing before seven Supreme Court justices, lawyers for the current Attorney General, Jeremy Wright QC, argued that the Court of Appeal had “erred” and failed to recognise that Parliament had reserved for ministers the ultimate say in deciding when information can be released in the public interest.

James Eadie QC, for the Government, said that Freedom of Information laws had been framed so that an “accountable person” in the shape of a senior minister could ultimately veto a decision of the Information Tribunal, the court which rules on FoI disputes.

He added: “Everyone has the right to respect for their correspondence. Such respect is necessary not only as an aspect of privacy, but also to enable freedom of expression, which would inevitably be inhibited by the removal of the right to communicate privately.

“All the more so in the case of the Prince of Wales, whose freedom to express himself publicly is constrained by his role as heir to the throne.”

The dispute is centred on 27 letters exchanged between Prince Charles and ministers in seven Whitehall departments during Tony Blair’s second Government between September 2004 and April 2005.

Named after the heir to the throne’s distinctive handwriting, the black spider memos were requested by The Guardian and have been the subject of a long-standing tussle over whether the Prince’s privacy or the public’s right to scrutinise the work of government has primacy.

The upper tribunal of the Information Tribunal ruled in 2012 that the public had a right to see the letters. But Mr Grieve overrode the finding by arguing that the documents could show Charles to be “disagreeing with Government policy” and thus be “seriously damaging” to the political neutrality expected of the monarch.

Lawyers for The Guardian will argue that the Government has failed to show any legal error made by the Information Tribunal when it ordered the disclosure and that the fact ministers disagreed with the court’s finding was not sufficient grounds to deploy a veto.

Judgment is expected at a later date.