Category Archives: Article 10

FOI needs a strong regulator

Slightly more than twenty working days ago I made a request to a government department under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Following the structure of section 1(1) of the same, I asked

Please confirm whether you hold [X information] regarding [Y]

If you hold this information, please disclose it.

There are relatively mundane reasons why I am keen to know the first point, and, following on from that, to have the information if it exists.

On the twentieth working day (give or take a bank holiday or two) I received a reply to the first point, but total silence on the second:

I can confirm that [government department] does hold [X information] regarding the [Y].

Although this is rather a bizarre approach to an FOI request (FOIA is after all, primarily about access to information, not just knowledge that it exists) I have no reason to think that the failure to note the second point of my very short request was anything other than an innocent mistake.

Accordingly, I pointed the mistake out to the government department, asking them to send the information by return. (I had to do this by email, because no phone number is given on the correspondence or on the relevant (sparse) website (query whether the service is accessible, therefore, to people who may have difficulties in communicating in writing.)) However, not only did I not get the information by return, I got a template reply, and a new reference number, indicating that my follow-up email is being treated as a wholly new request. I would not be surprised for it to take another twenty working days to get a substantive reply (if I’m wrong, I will update this post accordingly).

So what to do? Well, I could complain to the government department, or ask for an internal review, but that would likely take at least another twenty working days to get a response. I could complain to the Information Commissioner’s Office, but, anecdotally, I understand they are taking some months to allocate and deal with complaint, and the only likely outcome would be a declaration that the government department had failed to comply with its section 10 and section 17 FOIA obligations, and giving them another period of days to comply. I can’t make an application for judicial review because a) the idea is completely ridiculous (have you seen my bank balance?) and b) in March the High Court rather peremptorily dismissed an argument that JR should be available for FOIA cases of urgency (on the grounds that the right of appeal under the statutory scheme was sufficient.

And FOIA delays are not isolated incidents; the BBC’s Martin Rosenbaum has written recently, following up his and others’ research, about the apparent contempt with which some public authorities treat FOIA and the Information Commissioner. Yet the latter appears unwilling, despite having the powers to do so, to act. As the Campaign for Freedom of Information recently noted, her recent draft regulatory action policy effectively ignored the fact that she is responsible for FOIA regulation, as well as for data protection and eprivacy.

Data protection and privacy are certainly hot topics (try counting the number of arriviste consultants who’ve sprung up over the last year to get an idea of how hot) but freedom of information laws are a legislative expression of another fundamental human right. I don’t think it’s the case that as a society we just don’t care about FOI (look back to the MPs’ expenses scandal to see how important and high-profile it can be) so why is it that there appears to be no effective mechanism to enforce our rights in a timely way against a recalcitrant public authority?

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

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Filed under access to information, Article 10, Freedom of Information, Information Commissioner, Uncategorized

Is an FOI request from an investigative journalist ever vexatious?

Last week, in the Court of Appeal, the indefatigable, if rather hyperbolic, Mr Dransfield was trying to convince three judges that his request, made long ago, to Devon County Council, for information on Lightning Protection System test results relating to a pedestrian bridge at Exeter Chiefs Rugby Ground, was not vexatious. If he succeeds in overturning what was a thorough, and, I think, pretty unimpeachable ruling in the Upper Tribunal, then we may, at last, have some finality on how to interpret section 14(1) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA):

a public authority [is not obliged] to comply with a request for information if the request is vexatious

But what is certain is that the Court of Appeal will not hand down a ruling which would allow a public authority to feel able merely to state that a request is vexatious, and do nothing more to justify reliance on it. But that is what the Metropolitan Police appear to have done in an extraordinary response to FOIA requests from the Press Gazette. The latter has been engaging in a campaign to expose what it believes to be regular use of surveillance powers to monitor or investigate actions of journalists. This is both a serious subject and a worthy campaign. Investigative journalism, by definition, is likely to involve the making of enquiries, sometimes multiple ones, sometimes speculative, “to discover the truth and to identify lapses from it”. It is inevitable that an investigative journalist will from time to time need to make use of FOIA, and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) advises that

[public] authorities must take care to differentiate between broad requests which rely upon pot luck to reveal something of interest and those where the requester is following a genuine line of enquiry

The ICO doesn’t (and couldn’t) say that a FOIA request from an investigative journalist could never be classed as vexatious, but I think the cases when that would happen would be exceptional. The Upper Tribunal ruling by Wikeley J that Mr Dransfield is seeking to overturn talked of “vexatious” as connoting

a manifestly unjustified, inappropriate or improper use of a formal procedure

and

It may be helpful to consider the question of whether a request is truly vexatious by considering four broad issues or themes – (1) the burden (on the public authority and its staff); (2) the motive (of the requester); (3) the value or serious purpose (of the request) and (4) any harassment or distress (of and to staff)

although it was stressed that these were neither exhaustive, nor a “formulaic checklist”.

It is difficult to imagine that the motive of the Press Gazette journalists can be anything but well-intended, and similarly difficult to claim there is no value or serious purpose to the request, or the other requests which need to be considered for context. Nor has there been, as far as I am aware, any suggestion that the requests have caused Met staff any harassment or distress. So we are (while noting and acknowledging that we are not following a checklist) only likely to be talking about “the burden on the public authority and its staff”. It is true that some requests, although well-intentioned and of serious value, and made in polite terms, have been accepted either by the ICO or the First-tier Tribunal (FTT), as being so burdensome to comply with that (even before considering whether FOIA costs limits are engaged) they merit rejection on vexatiousness grounds. In 2012 the FTT upheld an appeal from the Independent Police Complaints Commission, saying that

A request may be so grossly oppressive in terms of the resources and time demanded by compliance as to be vexatious, regardless of the intentions or bona fides of the requester. If so, it is not prevented from being vexatious just because the authority could have relied instead on s.12 [costs limits]

and last year the FTT similarly allowed a late submission by the Department of Education that a request from the journalist Laura McInerney for information about Free School applications was vexatious because of the burden it would impose:

There is no question here of anything in the tone of the request tending towards vexatiousness; nor does anyone doubt Ms McInerney’s genuine motives…There is value in openness and transparency in respect of departmental decision making. That value would be increased by the academic scrutiny which the disclosed material would receive…In our judgment, however, these important considerations are dwarfed by the burden which implementation of the request places on DFE.

But it does not appear that the request in question from the Press Gazette was likely to go any way towards being grossly oppressive, or to being a burden which would “dwarf” the other considerations.

Moreover, and it does not appear to have been a point argued in the DfE case, there is an argument, explored through a series of cases in the Court of Justice of the European Union, and, domestically, in the Supreme Court, in Kennedy v ICO and Charity Commission, that Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, providing as it does in part a right “to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority” (subject to limitations that are prescribed by law, necessary and proportionate, and pursue a legitimate aim) might sometimes need to read down into FOIA, particularly where a journalist is the requester. Although the Supreme Court, by a majority, and on the facts (specifically in the context of a FOIA absolute exemption), rejected the submission in Kennedy, the argument in the abstract still has some weight – someone engaging in investigative journalism is clearly generally acting as a “social watchdog”, and the likelihood that they are making a FOIA request with bad motives, or without serious purpose, or in a way likely to harass or cause distress is correspondingly low. It seems to me that, absent the sort of “excessive burden” argument explored in the IPCC and DfE cases – and, as I say, the Met don’t seem to have advanced any such argument – to label a request from an investigative journalist as vexatious is to stand at the top of a slippery slope. One hopes that the Met review and reverse this decision.

p.s. In a world in which we are all journalists, this all has the potential to get very complicated.

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

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Filed under Article 10, Freedom of Information, journalism, police