It is important to note that there is no requirement in the FOIA that those intending to make requests for information have any prior knowledge of the information they are requesting.
These words of the Information Commissioner (IC) in, Decision Notice FS50465008, are an important statement about the role of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) in investigative journalism and activism. They establish that, at least in the IC’s view, FOIA requests may be made on a speculative basis, without a knowledge of the specific contents of documents.
To many users and practitioners they are probably also an obvious statement about the right to information conferred by FOIA. If someone is asking for information from a public authority, it is self-evident that, at least in the large majority of cases, they do not know what the information specifically consists of – otherwise, why request it? As the IC goes on to say
The idea of a requirement of prior knowledge that the relevant information exists is itself contrary to the very purpose of the legislation, let alone prior knowledge as to what it comprises
The request in question, made – as those who followed the “Govegate” imbroglio might have guessed – by the impressively dogged journalist Christopher Cook (who has given me permission to identify him as the requester), was to the Cabinet Office for
the last email received by the [Prime Minister] personally on government business via a private non-GSI account. I also want the last government email sent by the PM via such an account
It was made in the context of suspicions that attempts might have been made to circumvent FOIA by conducting government business using private email accounts. For obvious reasons Chris was unlikely to be able to identify the specific type of information he sought, and the Cabinet Office knew this, telling the IC that
he has no idea of the nature of the information that may be contained in such emails, if indeed such emails even exist…For a request for a document to be valid, it needs to describe (if it would not otherwise be apparent) the nature of the information recorded in the document. The Cabinet Office does not accept that asking a public authority to undertake a search for emails without any subject matter, or reference to any topic or policy, sent using a particular type of account can satisfy the requirement on the application to ‘describe the information requested’
However, the IC rejected this, splendidly demolishing the Cabinet Office’s position with an argument by analogy
a request for the minutes of the last Cabinet meeting would clearly describe the information requested, even though it does not describe the content by reference to the matters discussed
I think this decision is particularly important because it accepts that, sometimes, a person contemplating requesting information from a public authority might not have a fully-formed view of what it is she wants, or expects to get. Authorities sometime baulk at requests which they see as “fishing expeditions”, but the practice of investigative journalism (in de Burgh‘s classic formulation “…to discover the truth and to identify lapses from it in whatever media may be available…”) will often involve precisely that, and the IC recognises this
Whilst public authorities might find such requests irritating, the FOIA does not legislate against so-called ‘fishing expeditions’
The Cabinet Office must now treat Chris’s request as properly-made under FOIA. That does not mean that they will necessarily disclose emails from the PM’s private email account (in fact I’d be amazed if they did), but no one ever suggested the trade of investigative journalism was easy.