EU Court limits access to agencies' legal documents until after judgments

European Union agencies can restrict public access to documents they file in lawsuits until after cases are decided, the EU's highest court ruled.

The European Commission and other EU agencies pleading cases at the European Court of Justice can withhold their filings until a final judgment is issued, the Luxembourg-based court ruled today.

The commission, the EU's executive agency can "refuse an application for access to documents, without being under an obligation to undertake a specific examination," an 11-judge panel said.

Lawyers for the International Press Association, which represents foreign reporters in Belgium, initiated the case arguing that access to such documents is in the public interest. The group rejected as "purely hypothetical" the commissions' concerns that release of the documents may "adversely affect" judicial proceedings. In 2007, a lower EU court clarified the document restrictions may be lifted once a ruling is given.

The court rejected the lower court's position that the commission and other EU bodies may be under an obligation to give access to their filings after a hearing and before a final ruling, saying that could undermine pending cases.

"Disclosure of the pleadings in question would have the effect of exposing judicial activities to external pressure, albeit only in the perception of the public, and would disturb the serenity of the proceedings," the court said.

The not-for-profit association, which represents reporters from news organizations including Bloomberg LP, said it still believes document access before hearings would improve transparency and allow for more informed reporting.

"Increased public interest in cases before the court is simply a reflection of the court's ever-growing importance and should be seen as an opportunity," the association said in an e-mailed statement.

The cases are C-514/07 P Sweden v API and Commission, C- 528/07 P API v Commission, C-532/07 P Commission v API.

(Published by Bloomberg - September 21, 2010)

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