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HHC wins lawsuit against Ministry of Social and Labour Affairs in freedom of information case

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Váltás magyarra

In a lawsuit filed by the Helsinki Committee, the Metropolitan Appellate Court pronounced on 18 June 2009 that contracts with winners of tenders called for by government bodies are public information, as are documents containing assessment criteria and opinions relating to the tender winner.

In 2007 the Hungarian Helsinki Committee submitted a bid for one of the tenders announced under the “2007 – European Year of Equal Opportunities for All”. Following the decision on the tender, the Helsinki Committee contacted the Ministry of Social and Labour Affairs in order to gain access to tender documents. However, the Ministry did not provide any substantive information as to how the bids had been assessed. With the assistance of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, the Committee then sued the Ministry to gain access to this public information.

In December 2008, the first instance court ruled that only the contract signed with the tender winner constitutes public information, as tendering constitutes the spending of public funds. The court also ruled that the records containing the assessment criteria and the opinions that formed the basis of the Minister’s decision are data used to prepare the decision, which, if released to the public, could endanger the ability of the Ministry of Social and Labour Affairs to operate without external, unauthorized influence. The Helsinki Committee, represented by the HCLU, appealed the judgment, arguing that once a tender decision has been made, the decision-preparing nature of the data may only be invoked in case it has been shown that their disclosure would endanger the free expression of professional opinions.

The Metropolitan Appellate Court, in agreement with the appeal, pointed out that a final decision had already been made in connection with the data withheld by the Ministry, so the professional opinions and assessments relating to the tender winner and the plaintiff, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, shall be disclosed. The court pronounced that, as a matter of principle, governmental bodies must be able to face public scrutiny concerning their use of public funds, and this includes information and data generated during the decision-making process.

The final precedent-like judgment is significant as it shows that legal actions for information regarding the winners of tenders involving public funds, which up to this point have generally not been disclosed by secretive government agencies, can indeed be successful. Hence, tendering practices may become more transparent.

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Hungarian Helsinki Committee