The cost and burden of FOI…again

The Chief Constable of Surrey Police has gone on the offensive against Freedom of Information on Twitter this evening (and the Assistant Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police joined in).  It follows a predictable pattern where a public authority (and technically the Chief Constable is the public authority – schedule 1 to the FOIA provides that “A chief officer of police of a police force in England or Wales” is a public authority) complains about the cost of FOI and how it impacts upon the delivery of front line services.

It is a well trodden path which has, over the years, generated lots of discussion in information rights circles.  One of the frequent things to be picked up in these discussions is that, while public authorities are complaining about the cost and burden of FOI, they rarely mention any of the benefits.  Those benefits are around openness, transparency and accountability.

FOI, I can imagine, is probably a right pain in the backside to public authorities sometimes; however, just because it’s a royal pain in the backside doesn’t mean that it is of no value.  FOI is about allowing the citizen to set the agenda on the flow of information.  No longer is the flow of information dictated by what public authorities are prepared to release.  Now, if a member of the public wants to know something, they have the right to be given it if the public authority holds it and there is no good reason for not releasing it.

In times of shrinking budgets, FOI might be seen as an expensive luxury.  However, I would argue that in times of shrinking budgets FOI is all the more important.  As budgets shrink, public authorities have to take decisions about how they spend their ever shrinking budget.  That will often mean cuts to some services (or perhaps withdrawing services altogether).  It allows people who are directly affected by those decisions to go to the public authority and obtain the information that forms the basis of those decisions.  It can help them to understand why decisions have been taken and more importantly can better enable them to challenge decisions where they are perceived to be the wrong ones.

When Parliament drafted the FOIA, it didn’t do so without having any consideration as to the burden that this new regime would have on public authorities.  There are a number of provisions within the FOIA which help to control the burden of FOI.

First, there is section 12 of the Act which sets an appropriate limit on the costs of FOI requests.  A public authority is not obliged to comply with a request where the cost of compliance is estimated to excced the appropriate limit.  For a police force in England and Wales, the limit is £450 (indeed, it is £450 for all public authorities except Government departments or Scottish Public Authorities, where it is £600).  This does only covers certain activities and it is possible for requests to cost more than the appropriate limit in practice and not be capable of being refused under section 12.  This will be because the cost is incurred in an activity which cannot be taken into account in any cost calculations for the purposes of determining whether it exceeds the appropriate limit.

Sometimes, these requests will be the ones where the public interest is finely balanced and the authority is having difficulty establishing just where the public interest lies.  Should such requests be refused because of this?  I’d forcefully argue that they should not.  If it was possible to refuse these requests it would actively work against the public interest: the public might not get information which it would be in the public interest for them to have simply because it is going to take a bit of time for the public authority to work out just where the public interest lies.  However, sometimes the additional cost will be because there is a large volume of information to consider.  While, a request that throws up a large volume of information will often end up breaching the “appropriate limit”,  it is sometimes the case that there is a large volume of information held on a particular subject which is actually relatively quick and easy to locate and extract.  What takes the time then is the applying of exemptions and the conduct of the public interest test.  Section 12 isn’t an option in these requests, because the law doesn’t allow for it to apply.  However, this does bring us on to the next provision of the FOIA which is there to prevent the burden from being too great.

Before I look at that, I thought it would worthwhile pointing out that in terms of section 12 the law has provision within it to ensure that it cannot be avoided.  Simply breaking down a large request into a number of different requests will still likely engage the cost limit: public authorities can aggregate requests from the same individual received within a period of 60 consecutive working days which seek similar information.  So, asking for information on a particular subject over a 10 year period broken down into 5 requests each covering a 2 year period will be aggregated together.  All of the requests will be refused if the cost of complying with all of them is estimated to exceed the appropriate limit.  This provision goes further than that though; it’s not possible to get four of your mates to help you make 5 requests for the information over a 2 year period either.  The law provides that where “different persons who appear to the public authority to be acting in concert or in pursuance of a campaign” the public authority can again aggregate the cost and refuse all of the requests if they exceed the appropriate limit.

The second provision designed to help public bodies with the burden of FOI requests is section 14, which deals with both repeated and vexatious requests.  In terms of repeated requests, if a public authority has complied with a request from someone, they do not have to comply with a request from the same person which is for the same (or substantially similar) information unless a reasonable time has elapsed between the requests.

Vexatious requests are a bit more difficult; however, public authorities have been greatly helped by the decision of the Upper Tribunal in Dransfield (although, Mr Dransfield has appealed this decision to the Court of Appeal).  It is important to note that it is the request, not the person making it, which is vexatious. However, previous correspondence between the requester and the public authority can be relevant.  This provision largely allows public authorities to ignore people trying to use FOI to keep open grievances that have been rumbling on for a long time, especially where they have been the subject of complaints and independent scrutiny.  Section 14 also catches those who are making requests simply to annoy the public authority (quite possibly because of a previous complaint).  However, it can also be used to deal with requests where there is an unacceptable burden to the authority; described as “grossly oppressive”.

This is a higher burden than would be applicable in section 12, but it is an option that is open to authorities where requests produce large volumes of information with a lot of potentially exempt information – especially where those exemptions are qualified ones where the PI might be difficult to determine.  However, the ICO does consider it good practice to go back to the requester before claiming section 14 in these situations – and doing so would probably fall within a public authority’s duty to provide advice and assistance.  So, where a request is overly burdensome and section 14 could be claimed instead of section 12, a public authority should probably go back to the requester and try and work with the requester to refine their request.  Although requesters are not required to (and public authorities are generally discouraged from asking), trying to establish the motive and purpose of the request can help.  Engaging with the requester might save a public authority a lot of time in the long run as it becomes clear that only a tiny proportion of the information that has been uncovered is what the requester is after – the public authority gets to consider a much more refined request and avoids the possibility of an Internal Review and ICO complaint over its application of section 14 (and possibly an adverse finding against it, either in respect of its use of section 14 or its failure to provide advice and assistance).

I note that Surrey Police operates a disclosure log on its website, but that it states it only publishes responses which might have wider interest.  Disclosure logs can be a useful tool for public authorities.  There is an exemption for information which is already reasonably accessible to the requester.  Publishing all responses in a disclosure log on a website might enable public authorities to refuse requests under section 21 of the Act.  This is a quick and simple process that shouldn’t take a huge amount of time.  Most of the time will be spent ensuring that the request isn’t seeking additional information which is not already reasonably accessible to the requester.

This is where the WhatDoTheyKnow website comes into its own – all information released to requesters on that website ends up in the public domain automatically.  Just because it’s not actually published on the authorities own website, doesn’t mean it’s not reasonably accessible to the requester and so section 21 can still be used.  One public authority has even worked with WhatDoTheyKnow to utilise the technology behind WhatDoTheyKnow on their own FOI website, undoubtedly reducing the burden of operating a comprehensive disclosure log.

If public authorities notice trends in their requests, it might be worthwhile proactively releasing the information on a regular basis.  Then the exemption at section 22 is available to the public authority because it is information which is intended for future publication.  This exemption is subject to the Public Interest Test, but there will normally need to be compelling reasons for departing from a set date for publication.  Of course, public authorities would need to consider the cost balance here: is it more costly to routinely publish the information than deal with the FOI requests as they come in?  The UK provision on information intended for future publication is much more generous that the Scottish provision, where it only applies in cases where the intended publication is no later than 12 weeks following receipt of the request.

We often see complaints from public authorities about requests which are bizarre in nature, but as Jon Baines has demonstrated, those apparently bizarre requests do sometimes have a justification behind them.  For the ones that don’t, Tim Turner explains that they can be quickly disposed of.

There are, of course, steps that requesters can take to relieve the burden to public authorities and to that extent I commend Paul Gibbons’ guide to making FOI requests, which includes 10 very good tips for requesters.

A fairly long blog post, so if you have reached this point: thank you and well done!

——
Useful Links:

ICO guidance on section 12
ICO guidance on section 14
ICO guidance on section 21
ICO guidance on section 22

Councillors, Erroneous Benefit Claims, FOI and DPA

The relationship between FOI and Data Protection is one that causes frequent tension.  Obtaining personal data on third parties held by public authorities under FOI is, rightly, a difficult task.  On Sunday it was reported that Cornwall Council refused to release, in response to a Freedom of Information request, the name of a Councillor who had been advised by the Council that they had “erroneously claimed entitlement to Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit / Support” while they were a member of the Council, and that the amount involved was less than £5,000.  The Council refused to disclose the name of the Councillor on the basis that it was exempt under section 40(2) of the Freedom of Information Act (which exempts the release of personal data where its release would be in contravention of the Data Protection Act (DPA)).  This resulted in an interesting discussion between a few individuals on twitter relative to whether the Council was correct to withhold the Councillor’s name.

Lynn Wyeth concluded that it came down to the standard Data Protection Officer’s answer of “it depends” – and it really does; there is a whole heap of information missing which would be relevant to whether releasing the Councillor’s name would breach the DPA.

The starting point in respect of this one is establishing whether it is personal data, clearly it is; not only is it personal data, but it falls within the definition of sensitive personal data in section 2 of the DPA.  The information concerned here is personal data concerning the alleged commission of an offence by an individual (claiming benefits to which you’re not entitled being a criminal act).  This is an important point because the restrictions placed upon the processing of sensitive personal data are a lot more stringent than personal data which is not considered sensitive under the DPA.

The first Data Protection Principal is clear, that personal data must be processed fairly and lawfully.  It goes on to provide that personal data should not be processed unless at least one of the conditions in Schedule 2 is applicable; in the case of sensitive personal data it is also necessary to ensure that one of the conditions in Schedule 3 applies as well.

When it comes to releasing personal data under FOI, the condition in schedule 2 that is most often (if not always) applicable is Condition 6(1).  This condition provides:

The processing is necessary for the purposes of legitimate interests pursued by the data controller or by the third party or parties to whom the data are disclosed, except where the processing is unwarranted in any particular case by reason of prejudice to the rights and freedoms or legitimate interests of the data subject.

In other words, a person seeking the release of personal data about a  third party under FOI must be able to show that he has a legitimate interest and that it is necessary for the personal data to be disclosed in pursuance of that legitimate interest.  I would say that it would generally be the case that uncovering wrong-doing by an elected official while holding public office is a legitimate interest.  Unless the matter was reported in the newspapers or in other media at the time the accusation was being pursued by the body concerned, it would be necessary for the data controller to release the personal data in order to enable the third party to pursue their legitimate aim (uncovering misconduct by a public official and holding them to account).

However, this is personal data that falls within the scope of sensitive personal data and as such the very fact that condition 6(1) of Schedule 2 to the DPA is likely to be satisfied it is not the case that releasing the personal data would be fair and lawful.  There needs to be a condition in schedule 3 that is applicable as well.

In the normal course of things there wouldn’t, in my view, be a condition in schedule 3 which would apply – unless the data subject consented to the disclosure.  However, in certain circumstances it may be possible to use the paragraph 3(b) of Schedule 3 which applies where the processing is necessary:

in order to protect the vital interests of another person, in a case where consent by or on behalf of the data subject has been unreasonably withheld.

There are a number of key words here.  The first is “necessary”; if there was another way in which the vital interests of another person could be met without the data controller releasing the information then it wouldn’t apply (for example, if there had been a news report revealing the name – but then the FOI request wouldn’t have been necessary in the first place).  The next is “vital”; there is not, to my knowledge, any case law on what exactly “vital” means in the DPA – it appears in a number of places within Schedule 3.   It could reasonably be argued that uncovering the misappropriation of public funds by an individual elected to public office and holding that individual to account is a “vital” interest of a person other than the data controller (essentially everyone who the data subject is elected to represent).  Finally, the data subject’s consent must be unreasonably withheld.

This is where this case becomes particularly complicated.  It would seem that no criminal proceedings were ever brought against the councillor in question, and certainly it appears that there has been no conviction.  There is a presumption at the very heart of the criminal justice system in each of the legal jurisdictions in the UK: innocent until guilt is established.  As there would appear to be no criminal conviction in this case, the Councillor is an innocent member of the public holding elected public office.  The fact that there is no conviction, in my view, makes it harder to argue that there are vital interests to be protected.

This isn’t that straightforward though; some weight needs to be given to the fact that this individual was accused of making erroneous claims for benefits while an elected official.  Furthermore, it is necessary to give some weight to the fact that some form of procedure was carried out to reclaim overpayments made to the councillor.  However, that alone might not be enough to make release of their name under FOI fair and lawful.  There are other factors to be considered.  For example, if there was a settlement agreement in place which proceeded upon the basis of no admission of liability then that, I suggest, would tend to count against disclosure; especially if this was exactly how an individual who didn’t happen to be an elected member of the council would be dealt with.  That leads onto the next issue; was there any preferential treatment given to the Councillor? It would appear not, the Council has said that it was handled in accordance with the normal procedures.  Had it not been handled in accordance with normal procedures (e.g. he was given special treatment because he happened to be a councillor) then that might tip the balance in favour of disclosure because it would suggest some level of impropriety over and above the allegation that there was an ‘erroneous claim’.

In essence, these decisions are finely balanced.  I’m not going to say whether the Council was right or not to refuse to disclose because I’m not in possession of all of the relevant facts.  I don’t know what has gone on behind the scenes here, I don’t know whether the consent of the data subject has been sought let alone withheld unreasonably.  The journalist who made the request can make use of their right to request an internal review of the handling of the request and then complain to the Information Commissioner.  What I would say though is that simply because an elected official has been accused of something which may or may not amount to a criminal offence is not, in of itself, necessarily a justifiable reason to process personal data by releasing it under the Freedom of Information Act.

FOI at 10

On 1st January 2005 the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 and the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 all entered into force.  For the first time in the UK people had a right, backed by Statute, to ask for information held by public bodies and to be given that information unless it fell within the ambit of one of the exemptions in the Acts or Exceptions in the Regulations.  Those rights were backed-up by independent regulators who had the power to order public bodies to release information where it had been incorrectly withheld by public bodies.

Today, is of course, the 10th anniversary of the coming into force of those rights and it has become so ingrained into our lives that we probably don’t notice it.  Every year thousands of stories that we see on TV or in the newspapers or hear about on radio have been the result of information obtained under Freedom of Information; much of that information may well have remained hidden had it not been for the rights enshrined in law to obtain that information.

Freedom of Information has been used to uncover scandals around Parliamentary expenses, both in Westminster and in Holyrood.  The late David McLetchie resigned as leader of the Scottish Conservative party following revelations that he had used taxpayers money to pay for taxis used in connection with party, rather than constituency, business.  That information was obtained under Freedom of Information.  At Westminster some politicians have served prison sentences as details of their expenses claims were revealed with help from FOI (and a leak to the Telegraph).

Over the last 10 years, Freedom of Information has become a powerful tool for local and national campaign groups to obtain information from the State as to how and why decisions have been taken.  It has enabled public bodies to be held accountable much more easily and for the public to better understand decisions that have been taken by public bodies.

Of course, FOI has not come without its problems and difficulties.  It does add an additional burden to public bodies – but the legislation does have limits to ensure that the burden doesn’t become too big or disproportionate.  There are individuals who abuse their rights under FOI.  There are a group of individuals who make use of FOI to try and keep open grievances that they have had with the public authority – some of which have been running for many years and been subjected to every form of scrutiny possible.  There are also those who make requests about plans for dealing with a Zombie Apocalypse or how many red pens had been bought.

There have also been regular attempts to undermine Freedom of Information by representative bodies.  These attempts have often cited ‘bizarre’ FOI requests.  Many of these so called ‘bizarre’ requests have a perfectly legitimate basis as explored here by Jon Baines.  The Prime Minister, David Cameron, also has some pretty strange ideas as to what Freedom of Information is.

FOI was a hard won right, with organisations such as the Campaign for Freedom of Information spending decades campaigning for access to information rights.  As a consequence we have some of the best access to information rights in the world.  Our rights are wide-ranging and simple to use whereas in other countries they are restrictive and contain a multitude of technical requirements making them difficult to use while others put the rights out of the reach of ordinary people by requiring fees to be paid in order to exercise those rights.  However, while it is probably true to say that our FOI laws are some of the best in the world it is also true to say that they are in need of serious protection.  As the way in which public services are delivered has changed, a lot of information has fallen out of the scope of FOI.  The regular attacks from bodies representing public authorities also threaten FOI.  These are important rights and it is right that on the 10th anniversary of FOI we remember their importance and how easy it would be for a Government to reduce, restrict or remove those rights.  As a rule, politicians don’t like FOI – it can be embarrassing for them and leads to a much more informed electorate.  A better informed electorate is a good thing, as is removing the Government’s total control  over the flow of information.

The House of Commons Select Committee concluded that FOI ‘has been a significant enhancement to our democracy’ in a report following its post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.  FOI has changed our democracy for the better, the 10th anniversary is a good opportunity to remind ourselves of how significantly things have changed in the last 10 years as a result of FOI and how valuable it has become.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information fought hard to get FOI onto the statute books and continues to work hard to promote it, campaign for its strengthening and protection; perhaps you would consider donating, even a small amount, to help them with this important work.

Valid FOI requests via Twitter?

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has issued a Decision Notice that the Metropolitan Police failed to comply with section 10 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) which was made to it through Twitter.  In November 2012 the ICO issued a one page document setting out its view on whether a valid request can be made via Twitter.  In that document the ICO acknowledged that Twitter was not the most effective way to submit a FOI request; however, it went on to say that requests made via Twitter are not necessarily invalid.

The test for whether a request is a valid one or not is to be found in section 8 of the FOIA; it sets out the requirements as to what constitutes a valid request.  The Act provides:

(1) In this Act any reference to a “request for information” is a reference to such a request which—

(a) is in writing,

(b) states the name of the applicant and an address for correspondence, and

(c) describes the information requested.

(2) For the purposes of subsection (1)(a), a request is to be treated as made in writing where the text of the request—

(a) is transmitted by electronic means,

(b) is received in legible form, and

(c) is capable of being used for subsequent reference.

 Let us look at each requirement in turn:

The request is in writing

The starting point with statutory interpretation would normally be what is the literal meaning of the word?  Here Parliament has given us some assistance in interpreting what is considered to be in writing.  This does appear to be one of those ‘for the avoidance of doubt’ provisions and was most probably inserted to take account of E-mail.  There is little doubt that when passing the Act Parliament did not think about Facebook or Twitter, indeed when the Act was passed Facebook was barely a thing and Twitter hadn’t been invented.  However, as technology changes it is necessary for the law to move with it – whether it is capable of doing so without amendment by Parliament is a different matter!

Is a tweet transmitted by electronic means?

It is certainly sent and received by electronic means, but what does ‘transmitted’ mean?  According to the literal rule of statutory interpretation we must look at the ordinary meaning of the word transmitted.  Let’s turn to the online Oxford English dictionary and its entry for transmit.  Only the first two definitions are relevant here.  To transmit something is to “cause (something) to pass on from one person or place to another” or “broadcast or send out (an electrical signal or a radio or television programme).”  So, is a tweet transmitted by electronic means?  Sending a tweet is certainly causing something (the content of the tweet) to pass from one person (the sender) to the other (the recipient).  It might also be said that it is being sent from one place (the sender’s computer) to another (the recipient’s computer).  It could be said that sending a tweet is not too dissimilar to sending an E-mail.  Is it by electronic means?  I think that it is clear that it is, for obvious reasons such as without electronics there wouldn’t be the hardware to enable a tweet to be sent.  Is a tweet being broadcast or sent out?  The dictionary gives an example of an electronic signal or a radio/television programme.  What is a tweet?  It is essentially a series of digits which put together displays on the screen as an image – it might be said to be similar to a TV programme.  Whether it meets the second definition or not, I do think that it is safe to say it meets the first.

Is it received in a legible form? 

Well it’s certainly not going to be illegible because it is typeface rather than handwritten.  One might be of the view that this was perhaps to cover a handwritten note sent by fax and so probably isn’t relevant here – I think we can tick this box as well.

Is it capable of being used for subsequent reference?

This is where things get slightly more difficult! The Act doesn’t say who has to be capable of referencing it subsequently.  Obviously, the Public Authority will have to be able to reference it subsequently in order to check that it is complying with the request made.  Furthermore, the requester has to be able to subsequently reference it should they need to make a complaint to the ICO – the ICO will usually want to see the request and where possible evidence of the request having been sent.  However it does not seem to be as straight forward as that.

If I tweet a public authority’s official account, my tweets are not protected and I don’t do anything else then it is possible for both the public authority and I to subsequently reference the tweet.  On the face of it, this would clearly meet the requirement.  Whether or not they know it is there is probably an irrelevant question in the same way someone missing a request in their E-mail inbox doesn’t matter.

The issue becomes slightly more complicated if I protect my tweets later and the public authority is not following me – then only I can subsequently reference the tweet – or if I delete my tweet altogether.  In the first of these two situations (protecting my tweets where the authority is not following me) the tweet is clearly capable of being referenced subsequently, but only by me.   Does this meet the requirements of the Act?  Well I would suggest that in order to establish that we need to understand why Parliament included it.  What situations were Parliament envisaging when they enacted this part of the Act?  The explanatory notes do not provide any illumination on that question.  I don’t have time to, at this stage, wade through the many lines of debate in Handsard on the Bill in the hope that there is an explanation here.  I can’t immediately think of a situation which Parliament would have had in its mind when enacting this section.  On that basis I don’t think that really takes us any further forward.

The question that immediately springs to mind is for how long does the request have to be capable of being subsequently referenced by the authority?  If I protect my tweets on the 20th working day following sending the request is that different to if I protect them immediately following the sending of the request?  After all, by the 20th working day the authority should be in a position to respond, or at least have gathered all of the information in scope and simply be conducting the public interest balancing exercise.  I’d suggest there is a difference.  Quite where the ‘cut off is’ would most probably be a question of looking at the circumstances in each individual case – not an ideal situation though.

What about if I delete the tweet?  That might cause problems when making an application to the Commissioner – although taking a screenshot of the tweet prior to deleting it might cure that.  Again is it dependent upon when I delete the tweet – e.g. on the 20th working day or immediately after it was sent?

These are difficult questions and ones that don’t have clear answers.  However, in at least one case (the first – where the tweet was and remains public after it is sent and is not at any stage deleted or becomes inaccessible to the public authority by way of an individual’s tweets become protected) a tweet appears to meet all of the requirements set out in section 8(2) of the Act.

However, as mentioned earlier section 8(2) does seem to be more of a ‘for the avoidance of doubt’ subsection – a request can be in writing in other ways and it would appear that this has most probably been included so as to ensure that public authority’s treat requests received by E-mail as being valid requests – it would not appear to be the ‘be all and end all’ of the matter.

At the end of the day, what does ‘in writing’ mean? I don’t think we could realistically argue that a tweet is not ‘in writing’ even if it does not meet all of those tests – after all, a letter sent by mail doesn’t meet the requirements of section 8(2) and nobody would sensibly argue or find that such a request is not ‘in writing’ and so section 8(2) is clearly not the complete definition of what is meant by ‘in writing’ within section 8(1).

The request states the name of the applicant and an address for correspondence

Assuming that we have a request made via twitter that meets the definition of being ‘in writing’ the next requirement is that the request must state the name of the applicant and an address for correspondence.  If we accept that a public authority’s twitter accounts is an address capable of having correspondence (not necessarily just a FOI request, but any type of correspondence) sent to it, then equally an individual’s twitter account must also be an address for correspondence.  If an individual does not need to, for example, include within the body of their E-mail their E-mail address (i.e. it appearing in the ‘From’ field is sufficient) then I don’t see why someone would have to include their own twitter handle in their request – it is there for the authority to see in its mentions.

However, the name issue is more problematic.  It is the view of the Commissioner (and I believe that it is the correct one) that the name of the applicant must be their real name – lots of people don’t use their real name (or indeed any of the acceptable forms thereof for the purposes of FOI) in their twitter profile; so there we could have a problem.  If it’s not on their profile, then it’s not a valid request – even if we’ve managed to overcome the ‘in writing’ issue.

Describes the information requested

The final requirement is that the request describes the information requested.  That has to be in enough detail to enable the authority to identify what is sought.  That could be difficult in 140 characters.  However with services such as twitlonger it can be done.  It could also be possible to send the request over a number of tweets (as was done in the Metropolitan Police case linked to at the outset of this blog post).  I don’t see that as being any different to sending it in a number of letters or in a number of separate E-mails.  Indeed, when an authority seeks clarification because it is unable to identify what information is being requested it is looking at a request over at least two pieces of separate correspondence, if not more, to create a valid request.

Conclusion

The ICO does not say in its guidance that all requests made via twitter will be valid, only that a request made via Twitter may not necessarily be invalid.  I would certainly have to agree: it is possible to make a valid request by twitter.  Is it a good idea?  I would say that it’s not, and that it is probably best to stick to more conventional methods such as letter or E-mail.

Costs in the FTT: Snee v Information Commissioner & Leeds City Council

Under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 a decision by the Information Commissioner is capable of being appealed to the First Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) by either the public authority involved or the Complainant.  There is no cost in brining an appeal and parties are generally responsible for paying any legal costs that they incur (public authorities will often be represented as will the Commissioner; sometimes by Counsel).  Under The Tribunal Procedure (First-tier Tribunal) (General Regulatory Chamber) Rules 2009 the Tribunal has, on the application of a party, the power to award costs.  It can do so where the appellant has acted unreasonably in brining or pursuing the appeal.

Earlier this month the First Tier Tribunal issued a decision, Mark Snee v the Information Commissioner and Leeds City Council, in respect of an application for costs against an Appellant by Leeds City Council.  The Council were seeking their £20,000 costs in full, having  applied to be joined to the appeal and having been represented by Queens Counsel.  The Appellant in the case, Mr Snee, was represented by Counsel.  The Tribunal’s decision contains some useful information with regards to heir approach to such applications.

Mr Snee’s requests had been refused by the Council on the grounds that they were vexatious (section 14(1) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000).  The Commissioner and the Tribunal agreed that they were vexatious, and it was at that stage the City Council applied under Rule 10(1)(b) of the Tribunal Rules for costs.

One of the Council’s arguments, which was not accepted by the Tribunal, would have had a fundamental effect upon an individual’s right to appeal to the Tribunal.  It was argued that, because Mr Snee’s requests were vexatious he had acted unreasonably in bringing the case to the Tribunal.  The Tribunal did not agree.  It pointed out that the Commissioner had the opportunity to refuse to issue a decision notice where he found the complaint to be frivolous or vexatious, and the Tribunal had the power to Strike out an appeal upon the application of a party where it has no hope of succeeding.  The Tribunal stated that it was right to remember these protections against vexatious or hopeless appeals.  Automatically making appeals against a decision that requests are vexatious subject to the costs provisions where the appeal fails would have a significant impact upon the appeal rights of an individual.  The Tribunal considered that “it must be possible, depending on the circumstances, for the maker of a request regarded by everyone else as vexatious, to defend his or her position on that point without automatically being treated under the costs Rules as behaving unreasonably.”  In other words, it must be possible for an individual who makes a request which is considered to be vexatious to defend their position in the Tribunal.

In the Tribunal individuals who are appealing against the Commissioner’s decision in respect of their FOI request will often not have the benefit of legal advice.  Thus, what might appear to a fully trained lawyer to be “futile or wrongheaded”, the Tribunal considered that “it would be wrong to assume that the challenge is inevitably an unreasonable one for the citizen to bring.”  The comments had a much more general application than that and equally well apply to a range of other Tribunals within the First Tier Tribunal structure where Legal Aid is not available, or is available only in very limited circumstances.

It seems, from this decision, that the chances of an appellant facing a costs order for an Appeal against a decision of the Information Commissioner are unlikely; although it remains a possibility that costs will be awarded in exceptional circumstances; quite what those circumstances will be remains to be seen.  It seems more likely that an unreasonable appeal will be struck out during the early case management stages than for it to progress to a full hearing, thus preventing the generation of significant costs for all involved.

Princes, letters and Freedom of Information

Yesterday the Court of Appeal issued its judgment in the continuing saga that is the bid by Guardian Journalist Rob Evans to obtain the information contained in a variety of letters sent by HRH Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales to a number of departments of Central Government between 1 September 2004 and 1 April 2005.

The saga has been a long one in which the Information Commissioner agreed with the Government.  However, the Upper Tribunal disagreed and ordered a number of the letters to be released.  The Upper Tribunal found that the letters fell into two categories: those which were about the Prince of Wales preparing to become Monarch and those which were him advocating in respect of causes which were close to him.  It was this latter category of letters that the Upper Tribunal found after determining that they were not covered by the constitutional convention which provides that the heir to the throne be educated in Government business in order to prepare him (or her) for becoming King (or Queen) and that correspondence pertaining to that be confidential and not be released.

After the Upper Tribunal issued its decision the Attorney General issued a certificate under section 53 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) which sets aside the decision of the Upper Tribunal.  Mr Evans judicially reviewed that decision and the Administrative Court upheld the certificate.  Mr Evans then appealed to the Court of Appeal which quashed the Attorney General’s certificate.

There are two separate issues to the certificate.  The first one that I shall deal with here, is the EU dimension to the case.  Some of the information contained within the letters amounts to Environmental Information which falls to be governed by the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIRs).  Those Regulations exists to transpose into domestic law a EU Directive on access to Environmental Information which in turn exists to bring into EU law the provisions of the Aarhus Convention.  Therefore the principles of EU law apply to the Environmental Information and the domestic law cannot be incompatible with it.  In its judgment the Court of Appeal held that the existence of the veto was incompatible with EU law.  This effectively means that the veto contained in section 53 of the FOIA cannot be used in respect of information which is environmental in nature (as defined by the Directive and the Regulations).

The Directive which the EIRs transpose into domestic law provide that there should be an independent and impartial tribunal to decide upon whether a  public authority has complied with its obligations, and that the decision of this independent and impartial body must be final. The EIRs have, by virtue of the application of the FOIA, an extensive appeals structure which begins with a complaint to the Information Commissioner and subsequent appeal to a specialist tribunal followed thereafter by appeals on points of law potentially all the way to the Supreme Court.  While there is no single independent or impartial tribunal whose decision becomes binding, at some stage a decision will be made by an independent or impartial tribunal which is final and binding upon the public authority.  However, by virtue of section 53 of the Freedom of Information Act, it can be side-stepped by someone within the Executive (in this case the Attorney General).  The Divisional court, in its decision, held that the existence of the right to judicially review the decision to issue a certificate under section 53 of the FOIA.  However, the Court of Appeal disagreed.  The Master of the Rolls said at paragraph 55:

A judicial review of the certificate of an accountable person is substantively different from a review by a court or other independent body of the acts or omissions of “the public body concerned”. The focus of the two reviews is different.

The Court of the Appeal was of the view that as judicial review was focussed on the act of the person who issued the certificate, rather than on the public authority’s compliance with the EIRs, it was in breach of the requirements of European law; therefore it was unlawful.

The Court of Appeal also considered the Attorney General’s use of the ‘veto’ under section 53 in respect of the information contained in the letters which was covered by the Freedom of Information Act.  The Court held that in order for a section under section 53 to be valid, it had to be based on reasonable grounds.  The Court of Appeal decided that for the grounds to be reasonable there would have to be something more than simply disagreeing with the decision.  The Master of the Rolls gave some examples of what ‘something more’ might mean in paragraph 38 of the Court of Appeal’s decision:

a material change of circumstances since the tribunal decision or that the decision of the tribunal was demonstrably flawed in fact or in law.

Such an interpretation of the law clearly significantly affects the power of ministerial veto and its effectiveness.  It is also clearly against the intention of Parliament when it passed the Freedom of Information Act.  The veto was placed in the Act by the Labour Government that passed it as a central element of the Act – something to act as backstop to protect central government from inappropriate releases.  It was intended to place central Government in the position of being the final arbiter of what central government information is released under FOI.  It is a constitutional aberration as described by both the Divisional Court and the Court of Appeal, but that is what Parliament determined when it passed the law with section 53 in it.

The Court of Appeal quashed the Attorney General’s certificate which makes the Upper Tribunal’s decision requiring release of certain letters effective again.  It held that his certificate was unlawful in terms of all of the information it was intended to cover.  This is certainly a key judgment and is very interesting.  It engages with some important issues in respect of the ministerial veto, and it is a Court of Appeal decision.  However, as much as I agree in principle with the Court of Appeals decision, I think in terms of the legal matters I suspect that it is vulnerable to being overturned, at least in part, on appeal.

I am of the view that the Court of Appeal’s decision should be treated with a bit of caution.  In respect of the application of the veto  on Environmental Information, the Court of Appeal’s decision appears to be entirely correct.  The existence of the veto does not sit well with the requirements of the Directive and is most probably unlawful in terms of European law.  However, I suspect that the Court of Appeal has fallen into error in its interpretation of section 53 insofar as it relates to information covered by the Freedom of Information Act.  The veto was clearly intended to be used in the way the Attorney General used it when passed by Parliament.  It was Parliament’s clear will and it would be inappropriate to read things into the legislation that as so clearly against the will of Parliament.

The Attorney General has been given permission to appeal the Court of Appeal’s decision to the Supreme Court and it will be interesting to see what the Supreme Court has to say.  I suspect there will be a great deal of discussion around the meaning of the words ‘reasonable opinion’ in section 53.

Pro-active disclosure and FOI

It was today reported on the BBC News website that the Chief Executive of NHS Dumfries and Galloway has come out and said that his Board’s FOI initiative had been a complete failure.  NHS Dumfries and Galloway had, in a bid to cut the number of Freedom of Information requests they received, pro-actively published information and statistics.  During the period there had been a 25% increase in the number of requests received.

Before addressing the substantive issue, I will address a couple of questions that I was left with after reading the article.  Firstly, I was left wondering how the Board had decided what information and statistics they were going to publish (it’s all very well publishing information and statistics, but if it’s not the information and statistics that people are interested in it’s not really going to ever have the desired effect).  I was also left wondering how many of the requests received during that period were for information that had already been published.  That is also relevant because if there was a large number of requests for already published information that would indicate a problem with the requesters and not the Board.

Let me take the latter of the two questions first.  FOI is not, and should never be seen as, a way of getting public authorities to do your research for you.  Indeed, there is an exemption with both the Scottish and UK legislation that exempts information that is otherwise available to the applicant.  It is incumbent upon individuals to look for the information they want before putting in their request.  If they did that they might save themselves some time (public authorities essentially have a month to respond to your request) and would also save the taxpayer money.  If a large number of requests received in period of observation were for information already published by the Board then the number of requests could be reduced if people were (a) more aware that the information was pro-actively published and (b) more responsible in their use of FOI.

On the first question that the article left me with, if you’re not publishing the information that people want then people are still going to write to you and request it.  What analysis was undertaken by the Board before deciding what to pro-actively publish and what not to pro-actively publish?   I don’t think I need to say any more on that point here.

I think that public authorities who are seeking to pro-actively publish information to reduce the burden of FOI on them must consider a few things.  Firstly, what is the point of FOI?  Simply, put FOI is about putting the citizen in charge of what information they receive.  Of course, that right is qualified and certain information can be withheld by law.  However, it is no longer the case that the citizen only ever receives the information that public authorities want to tell them.  Unless you are completely open there is always the chance that information you decide not to pro-actively publish is the information that someone would like and that will result in an FOI request for that information.  Secondly, I think that they need to address their views towards openness.  Public authorities should be pro-actively publishing information because they value being open and allowing the public to properly assess what they are doing; not because it might save some money on the balance sheet.

I do not think it unreasonable for public authority’s to assume that by pro-actively publishing information that they will reduce the number of FOI requests that they receive.  It follows that if requesters search for the information before requesting it, they will locate it without the need to request information and as such will not make an FOI request for it.  However, there is the possibility that releasing information will generate further FOI requests.  Releasing information might generate requests for other connected information that is not published, or for more detailed information than is published.  For example, publishing the agenda and/or minutes of a meeting might generate requests for information in documents referred to within the meeting minutes.  Public authorities could take a decision at the time as to whether they are going to pro-actively publish those documents or whether the potential saving by pro-actively publishing them doesn’t negate the cost of considering them for release on the basis that they might be requested in an FOI request.  It is a judgement call for the public authority in question.

Lynn Wyeth (@LynnFOI), an FOI Officer, on Twitter made this point in a tweet that she tweeted.  Her own experience was that pro-active publication generates more follow-on requests.  However, she also made an interesting point when she tweeted  asking “How do you know how many FOI requests you haven’t received, if you haven’t received them?”  There is of course no way for NHS Dumfries and Galloway to know how many requests were prevented because of their pro-active disclosures.  The simple fact is that it cannot.  It can look at the information it does have though and question what it tells them.  For example, if the requests it did receive included a number of requests for information which was already published, it could consider how it could better inform people of what information it is pro-actively publishing.  You will never eliminate requests for information that is already available because you will never eliminate lazy requesters, or those without the technical ability to locate information which isn’t obviously available.

Tim Turner (@tim2040) tweeted that pro-active publication should be done “in the public interest with no expectation of a knock-on effect for FOI”.  I tend to agree with him, but as already stated I don’t think it unreasonable for the assumption to be considered.  Pro-active publication is a good thing, but it should be seen as an addition to FOI and not a replacement for it.  FOI is an important right because it allows citizens to request the information that they want, not just to receive what an authority wants them to see.   Pro-active disclosure is only one aspect of transparency and accountability; that fact should not be lost sight of.