Was the Queen’s Funeral day a FOIA “working day”?

Under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 a public authority must respond to a request for information within 20 working days. For obvious reasons “working day” does not include a bank holiday. Does this mean that for FOIA requests made before Monday 19 September 2022 (the bank holiday in recognition of the late Queen’s funeral) public authorities and requesters must add an extra day when calculating when a response to the request is due? The jury is out.

Section 10(6) of FOIA defines a “working day” as

any day other than a Saturday, a Sunday, Christmas Day, Good Friday or a day which is a bank holiday under the Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971 in any part of the United Kingdom

And section 1 of the Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971 says

the days specified in Schedule 1 to this Act shall be bank holidays in England and Wales, in Scotland and in Northern Ireland as indicated in the Schedule

The Schedule to that 1971 Act therefore provides a number of dates which are to be considered as bank holidays

All straightforward then? Not quite. Sections 1(2) and 1(3) of the 1971 Act go on to add that the Sovereign can effectively remove or add a bank holiday “by proclamation”, and this was the means by which 19 September was made a bank holiday.

(In passing it’s interesting to note that those sections of the 1971 Act refer to proclamations by “Her Majesty”. Clearly “Her Majesty” could not have made the proclamation. However, by section 10 of the Interpretation Act 1978 “In any Act a reference to the Sovereign reigning at the time of the passing of the Act is to be construed, unless the contrary intention appears, as a reference to the Sovereign for the time being”.)

But the question of whether the 19 September should be classed as a working day or not for the purposes of FOIA requests which were already running, might turn on the extent to which the general presumption at common law applies, whereby legislation is not intended to have retrospective effect. See, in this regard, Lord Kerr in Walker v Innospec Limited and others [2017] UKSC 47:

The general rule, applicable in most modern legal systems, is that legislative changes apply prospectively…The logic behind this principle is explained in Bennion on Statutory Interpretation, 6th ed (2013), Comment on Code section 97:

‘If we do something today, we feel that the law applying to it should be the law in force today, not tomorrow’s backward adjustment of it.’

An exception to the general rule will only apply where a contrary intention appears.

It might be said, though, that the proclamation of a bank holiday, pursuant to a statutory power, is not in itself a legislative change to which the general rule against retrospectivity applies. I’m not sure there’s a clear answer either way.

Whether public authorities should have one extra day for a FOIA request is clearly not a constitutional issue which should trouble the great minds of our generation (although I know plenty of FOI teams and officers who are judged on their performance against indicators such as response times). Nonetheless, I asked the ICO this week what their view was, and the answer that came back was that they didn’t have a settled position on the issue, but that, in the event of a subsequent complaint about whether a deadline had been met, they would take all the circumstances into account (which I take to mean that they are unlikely to criticise a public authority whichever way it decided to approach the question).

Shortly after initially uploading this post, I was contacted by someone who pointed out that the New Zealand parliament has specifically legislated to give retrospective “non-working-day” effect to its own extraordinary bank holiday. This would seem to reinforce the point about the presumption against retrospectivity unless there’s an express intention to the contrary.

So it probably doesn’t matter, and probably no one really cares. But I enjoyed thinking about it.

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