Newcastle University will be forced to disclose licences governing its controversial experiments on primates after a tribunal ruled that they would not be exempt from freedom of information (FOI) requests.
The landmark decision by the information tribunal paves the way for other animal rights campaigners to challenge similar research universities to publicise details of their animal experiments.
The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) first submitted an FOI request to the University of Newcastle in June 2008 but it was refused. The campaigners then demanded Newcastle release Home Office licences, which the institution said allowed them to conduct experiments on monkeys.
The tribunal noted on Tuesday the "strong public interest in animal welfare and transparency and accountability" in relation to animal experiments. The court also rejected claims from the university that disclosing the information would endanger its staff or prejudice commercial interests.
According to the BUAV, one of Newcastle's lead researchers had previously been refused permission to conduct similar primate experiments in Germany, as they were deemed "unethical". The university's current experiments have been discussed in three articles, but apparently do not identify any benefit for human health.
The BUAV have called the experiments "highly invasive" as they involve implanting electrodes into brains of macaques to record activity while repeatedly forcing them to undergo various tasks. The BUAV claim the monkeys were subjected to a "high level of distress" as they were forcibly restrained by the head and body.
The animals were also deprived water in order to motivate them to perform tasks, said the BUAV.
Michelle Thew, BUAV Chief Executive, said the organisation was "delighted" with the ruling.
"Once again the courts have dismissed Newcastle's attempts to hide the truth about its animal experiments. For well over three years, Newcastle University has tried every which way to avoid providing us with information.
"These are highly controversial and invasive experiments carried out on monkeys at a public institution. The public has a right to know what is happening to these poor animals and why."
The university refuted the campaigning group's claims that they will be forced to hand over the licences, saying the decision was yet to be finalised.
A spokesperson for the institution said: "The first tier tribunal has confirmed that the University should not release the full project licenses as requested by BUAV."
Newcastle University added a separate Court of Appeal would rule on whether the licenses could be released at all and cited the Animal Scientific Procedures Act (ASPA), which say it is an offence to do so.
But a spokesperson for BUAV told the Huffington Post UK the statement was "misleading".
"It is not the case that it would be a criminal offence under ASPA to release the licences. That is the very question which the Court of Appeal will be deciding."
The animal rights organisation claims it is possible to carry out the same studies using non-invasive imaging machines and adds it is a "fundamental principle" of UK legislation that animals should not be used where non-animal methods can provide the desired information.
But Newcastle continued to defend its research, saying: "The University carries out a small amount of scientific work on primates where no alternative for the research exists and this is fully regulated by the Home Office.
"Indeed, Newcastle University is recognised as a national Centre for the '3Rs' of animal research: reduction, replacement and refinement."
In its policy on the use of animals in research, the university states: "Newcastle University only uses animals in research programmes which are of the highest quality and where there are no alternatives.
"While new methods have enabled scientists and medical researchers to reduce work involving animals, some work must continue for further fundamental advances to be made."
But BUAV argues that "aside from the ethical issues and lack of benefit to human health", the primates used in the experiments can be replaced with human volunteers.
"Hiding behind government regulation is not acceptable", a spokesperson from the organisation added.