An appeal seeking the release of Prince Charles's correspondence with ministers, so that the extent of his behind-the-scenes lobbying may be publicly assessed, has been adjourned until next year.
Examination of the documents by a freedom of information appeal tribunal has been "deferred" for reasons the panel said it could "not go into".
The delay came at the end of a day's cross-examination of Rodney Brazier, professor of constitutional law at Manchester University, who said that the "obligation of confidence [on the government] is very wide indeed". Perhaps, he added, the tribunal would say it was too wide.
The Guardian is seeking the release of letters written by Prince Charles during an eight-month period between September 2004 and April 2005 involving the departments responsible for business, the environment, health, schools, culture, Northern Ireland and the Cabinet Office. The Guardian argues they should be released so the public can see how much Prince Charles seeks to influence government policy.
The government departments and information commissioner have refused on the grounds that such correspondence remains private under "constitutional convention" that allows the heir to the throne to be educated in the business of government to prepare him for succession. Any disclosures would undermine the perception of political neutrality fundamental to him being sovereign, they claim.
Attention was drawn today to the prince's official website, which states that in his correspondence with ministers he "is always careful to avoid party political issues".
Brazier was asked by Michael Fordham QC, for the Guardian, whether public confidence in Prince Charles would be undermined if some of the prince's letters strayed into such matters.
It would depend on the quantity of such examples, Brazier replied. "We can all make mistakes. We can all be badly advised or reject advice for any reason. No one over the course of 40 years is going to be able to say they have never put their foot wrong."
Brazier agreed that in an article for a constitutional law review in 1995 his view had been that the extent of letter writing by the prince amounted to a "constitutional innovation".
In evidence to the tribunal the professor said: "I think [the prince] has taken this kind of initiative in writing to ministers and putting his views to a much greater extent than his predecessors."
Nonetheless, Brazier said he considered this activity to be part of the traditional activity of the heir the throne under what he termed "the apprenticeship convention" – the process of the prince learning about the business of state.
Prince Charles is keeping a close eye on the proceedings: a number of royal aides were in court today.
The case continues.
Prince Charles's letters to ministers stay secret as appeal is adjourned (The Guardian, 16 September 2010)