Under Section 43(3) of Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FOISA) the Scottish Information Commissioner has the power to assess whether a public authority is following good practice. The Scottish Information Commissioner recently published two practice assessments reports and action plans that staff at the Commissioner’s office had conducted.
Scottish Legal Complaints Commission
The Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC) has had its assessment report published by the Office of the Scottish Information Commissioner. On 24 and 25 January 2012 two members of the Commissioner’s team visited the SLCC to conduct a practice assessment on the SLCC’s practice around the FOISA and the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 (EIRs). The Commissioner’s staff spoke to a number of staff within the SLCC (including its Chief Executive, Rosemary Agnew, who becomes Scotland’s second Information Commissioner next week).
The report states that “in selecting the SLCC for assessment the Commissioner took into account the issues arising from the relatively high number of applications for decision he had received concerning the SLCC, compared to the size of the organisation.”
The report is more than satisfactory showing that the SLCC has taken steps to rectify problems identified within its FOI processes ahead of the Commissioner’s assessment. This has included employing an Information Officer who, among other things, has sole responsibility for FOI within the SLCC. The assessors were satisfied that there had been enough training on FOISA to ensure that members of staff throughout the organisation were capable of identifying requests for information within other correspondence when FOISA might not necessarily be mentioned (e.g. in complaint letters) and that they were aware of how these should be processed.
The report notes the SLCC’s practice of seeking clarification in accordance with Section 1(3) of FOISA in the acknowledgment letter. The SLCC uses a set of templates for responding to information requests and on the whole these were generally good. However, the Commissioner’s staff did make some recommendations on how to further improve the template letters.
In total the Commissioner’s staff made a total of six recommendations arising out of the practice assessment. None of these recommendations represented serious failures in practice and were more housekeeping matters to ensure that the standard of FOI practice compliance remains of a good quality.
Scottish Court Service
The Scottish Court Service (SCS) has had its assessment report published by the Office of the Scottish Information Commissioner. On 13 and 14 December 2011 two members of the Commissioner’s team visited the SCS to conduct a practice assessment on the SCS’s practice around FOISA and the EIRs.
The SCS’s system for recording and monitoring requests appeared, at the time of the request, quite burdensome and there does appear, from reading the report, the potential for requests to get lost or in the monitoring and tracking process. However, the report notes that the SCS was in the process of purchasing new software to monitor and record FOI requests which was hoped to be in place by March 2012. SCS HQ was only made aware of request received at a local level on a monthly basis, by which time deadlines for requests might have actually passed.
Some issues were highlighted with the SCS’s compliance with the statutory timeframe. It transpired that the SCS was using the response calculator on the Commissioner’s website, which is primarily aimed at requesters and calculates time for postage either side of the 20 working days. The SCS agreed to start calculating response times independently of the calculator on the Commissioner’s website.
The SCS’s response standard template for responding to a equirement for review was missing notification of an applicant’s right to appeal the commissioner’s decision to the Court of Session on a point of law. This is required by Section 21(10) of FOISA and was altered during the course of the assessors’ visit to the SCS.
The overall report on SCS’s practice in relation to FOISA and the EIRs is good. The report makes 10 recommendations as to how the SCS can improve its FOI and EIR practice. With the exception of timescales and informing applicants of their rights in accordance with Section 21(10) of FOISA the recommendations are mainly housekeeping ones to ensure a good level of practice is maintained.