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Prince Charles’ letters: a political and legal drama

The recent (March 2014) saga of Prince Charles’ letters to the UK Government is intriguing from a political perspective, and throws up issues going to the heart of UK constitutional law.

Why is it so important to know what Prince Charles has been writing?

Not for public consumption

The story begins with a series of 27 letters that Prince Charles sent to ministers in 2004 and 2005 to express his views on a range of topics. The letters are said to be exceptionally forthright, even by the standards of a prince not known for fence-sitting, and the question is whether his opinions affected Government policy.

Requests by Guardian journalists for the letters to be released under the Freedom of Information Act were initially refused. The journalists were told that the letters could damage public perception of the Prince’s neutrality, affecting his ability to function as a future monarch

The matter came before an Information Tribunal in October 2012 which ordered that the letters should be released. The Tribunal said that the public had a right to know whether and how the Prince had used his position to influence government policy.

Ministerial veto

Attorney general Dominic Grieve used his right under the Freedom of Information Act to veto the decision of the Tribunal. He persisted in the argument that the letters could cause constitutional problems as they contain the Prince’s “most deeply held personal views and beliefs”.

Court of Appeal decision

The fight for the letters to be released continued and in March 2014 the Court of Appeal came down on the side of the journalists.

The Court found that the attorney general must have an objective legal or factual reason for using the veto. In this case he simply disagreed with the decision, which was not a lawful basis for using his veto.

Legal and constitutional implications

It is likely that the case will continue to the Supreme Court. If they uphold the decision it will be a landmark moment for openness in government.

The purpose of Freedom of Information Act is to ensure transparency in government. As the Information Commissioner’s website states, “Unnecessary secrecy in government leads to arrogance in governance and defective decision-making”, and, “Openness is fundamental to the political health of the modern state”.

Clearly, giving ministers an absolute veto defeats the purpose of the Freedom of Information Act. In the words of one judge, it is a “constitutional aberration”. Having strong restrictions on the veto would be a victory for democracy and government accountability.

The other big issue to arise is that of the political role of the royal family. If the Prince’s letters are released and show that he tried to influence government policy, this will surely spark huge controversy as the monarchy is based on political neutrality.

Even if the Supreme Court decides the letters should not be revealed, it seems that the cat is already out of the bag. The attorney general himself has admitted that they are “particularly frank”.

Regardless of the final outcome, this case is likely to generate wide debate on state transparency, and the political and constitutional position of the royal family.

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