ClientEarth v. European Food Safety Authority

Access to Information

ClientEarth v. European Food Safety Authority & European Commission, Case C‑615/13 P
European Court of Justice

In 2010, ClientEarth and Pesticide Action Network Europe (PAN Europe) applied for access to the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) working documents for a guidance document intended to provide an interpretation of EU regulations governing pesticide authorization applications. EFSA eventually released all of the requested information except for the names of outside experts who commented on the draft guidance document. EFSA determined the names were “personal data” under European Commission Regulation 45/2001 and thus were exempt from disclosure. Para. 15. The General Court dismissed ClientEarth and PAN Europe’s request to annul EFSA’s decision.

ClientEarth and PAN Europe argued the lower court construed the term “personal data” too broadly. The regulation defines personal data as “any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person.” See European Commission Regulation 45/2001, Art. 2(a). The organizations argued personal data does not include professional statements made by experts nor identities made public on the EFSA’s website. The European Court disagreed and upheld the lower court’s judgment that the names of the experts were personal data that could be withheld from disclosure.

ClientEarth and PAN Europe next argued that the General Court improperly focused on whether disclosure was necessary and failed to weigh the interests of the right of transparency against the right to protection of privacy and personal data. Regulation 45/2001 declares that personal data may be disclosed if the party requesting the information demonstrates necessity and there is no reason to assume that the disclosure will prejudice the interests of the data subject. Para. 47. If there is reason to assume the disclosure will prejudice legitimate interests of the data subject, the decisionmaker must weigh the relevant interests. Id. The European Court determined that the court below correctly began its analysis by inquiring whether necessity existed.

Where the European Court differed in its analysis from the General Court was on the issue of necessity.  ClientEarth and PAN argued that disclosure of the experts’ names was necessary based on a general requirement of transparency, conferred by the Treaty on European Union.  The organizations also argued that disclosure of the requested information would ensure transparency of EFSA’s decisionmaking process, which was tainted by claims of partiality and improper influence by industry groups. Paras. 51, 53, 55. Although the European Court declared that general transparency principles do not automatically trump the confidentiality of personal data (Para. 51), it recognized the strong need to overcome the climate of suspicion as well as to ensure democratic function. The Court also noted evidence linking EFSA working group experts with industrial lobbies. For these reasons, the European Court set aside the judgment of the court below.

The European Court decided to provide a final judgment in the matter. Para. 62. Having found necessity, it next considered whether disclosure might adversely affect the individual experts. EFSA argued disclosure would negatively impact the privacy and integrity of the experts who commented on the guidance document. The Court disagreed and further declared such a weak standard would apply too generally and thus be contrary to the need for strict interpretation of exceptions to the right of access to documents of institutions. Para. 70. The Court concluded the request for the transfer was appropriate and therefore annulled EFSA’s decision, ordering EFSA to pay legal costs to ClientEarth and PAN Europe.