Tag Archives: FOI

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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A day to remember

I’ve written about this oddity before, but thought it was worth saying it again, because it can catch the *cough cough* best of us out. The oddity being that a bank holiday falling in any part of the United Kingdom counts as a non-working-day for the purposes of FOIA. So, as January 2nd (or the nearest substitute day) is a bank holiday in Scotland, it is not a working day for the purposes of calculating the maximum timescale for compliance with a request made under FOIA, despite the fact that Scotland has its own Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

What “bank holiday” means, according to section 10(6) of FOIA, is 

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 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 Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971 also provide that the Queen can effectively remove or add a bank holiday “by proclamation”.

As the London Gazette records, on 23 July 2021 a proclamation was made by Her Majesty, providing that

We in pursuance of section 1(3) of the Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971, do hereby appoint …Tuesday the twelfth day of July in the year 2022 to be a bank holiday in Northern Ireland

So those calculating when FOI responses to requests made in recent weeks are due, will need to factor in this extra day.

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GDPR reprimands for Cabinet Office, UKIP, CPS & ors

A piece by me just uploaded to the Mishcon de Reya website, on an FOI disclosure to me of the most recent reprimands under GDPR/ UK GDPR issued by the Information Commissioner

ICO reprimands Cabinet Office, UKIP, CPS and others for (mishcon.com)

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Filed under Data Protection, Freedom of Information, Information Commissioner, Cabinet Office, GDPR, UK GDPR

Commons Committee report on Cabinet Office FOI “Clearing House”

I’ve written on the Mishcon website about the PACAC report on the Clearing House.

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Lots of FOI contempt applications in the wings

A new piece on the Mishcon de Reya site: the First-tier Tribunal is dealing with at least eight applications to certify contempt of court for failure by public authorities to comply with decision notices.

FOI enforcement starts to get serious?

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First ever FOI contempt certification

I’ve written a piece on the Mishcon de Reya website on the first ever case of certification of contempt of court to the High Court, for failure to comply with a decision notice.

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Open Letter to new ICO

I was delighted recently to be invited by OpenDemocracy to sign an open letter to John Edwards, new Information Commissioner, calling for more to be done to regulate FOI effectively. I’ve written many posts in the past breaking the state of FOI enforcement, so everything in the letter resonated with me. The letter has now been sent, and there are some very high profile journalists, MPs and campaigners who have signed:

https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/freedom-of-information/information-commissioner-foi-open-letter-secrecy/

Edwards has already replied, and said that addressing these concerns will be a priority for him.

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The Seepage of Information Act

Transport yourself back to January 2020 (what a different world that was). You are a journalist, or maybe just an informed citizen, and you want to know what preparations the government had made in the event Boris Johnson had lost his seat in the general election a month previously.

You make a request for this information to the Cabinet Office under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). You know that you should get a response within twenty working days (section 10 of FOIA says so). And you know that there is a regulator (the Information Commissioner, or “ICO”) who oversees compliance with FOIA.

What you probably don’t expect is that, 25 months on, you not only haven’t received the information you requested but you have only just had a ruling from the ICO that you are not entitled to it.

That’s how long it has taken this request to make its way through what is an unacceptably slow process. The requester made the request to the Cabinet Office on 7 January 2020. By 12 March 2020 they had had no response whatsoever, so complained to ICO. Three months later, on 16 June 2020, ICO formally told the Cabinet Office to pull its finger out. On 3 August it did, and refused to disclose the requested information, citing one of the statutory exemptions. On 22 September 2020 the requester again complained to ICO, who then took sixteen months to decide that the Cabinet Office was entitled to rely on the exemption claimed.

What follows is far from a fully thought-out legal argument, but bear with me for the purposes of polemic: Article 10 of European Convention on Human Rights says that everyone has the qualified right to receive information (as well as to impart information) without interference by public authority. Previous attempts to argue that Article 10 confers something above and beyond FOIA in respect of accessing information from public authorities have foundered, on the grounds that, in context, Article 10 doesn’t add anything to the rights in FOIA (see Kennedy, para 92 and elsewhere). But it does seem to me that if the regulatory scheme itself interposes a delay which might be, as here, 1600% longer than the original statutory timescale given to the original recipient for responding to the request, the basis might arise for mounting an argument that the scheme fails to avoid public authority interference in the Article 10 fundamental right.

Maybe I’m overreaching. Let’s just say this: it cannot be right that it takes over two years to get a response and a regulatory decision on a FOIA request. Let’s hope new Commissioner John Edwards sorts this out.

The views in this post (and indeed most 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, Cabinet Office, Freedom of Information, Information Commissioner

Reporter uses FOI to lift anonymity order

Here’s a remarkable example of good use of Freedom of Information (FOI) law. Tanya Fowles, a reporter covering courts in Northern Ireland, has successfully applied to lift a reporting restriction order, originally made in the magistrates’ court, which prevented her naming a person convicted of causing a child to engage in sexual activity.

The court appears to have imposed the original order because of a perceived risk to the defendant’s safety, based on evidence given by a police officer, who is reported to have told the court that

It’s a small, rural community. The family would be well-known. I think he would be easily identified. I know of incidents recently where paedophile hunters have gone to houses and attacked individuals. I am aware that is prevalent within the area, or certainly was last year. They have turned up at houses and one was arrested for assault. After that there was a bit of a lull, but I believe they are still active in the area.

However, Fowles then made an FOI request to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which revealed that, far from such incidents being prevalent, police had only attended seven incidents in the entire County Armagh area during 2019/20, resulting in a single report of assault but zero prosecutions. This evidence was accepted in the county court (to which the case had been transferred) and the reporting restriction order was lifted.

The views in this post (and indeed most 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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ICO fails at FOI

I won’t rehearse the points I made in previous posts. Enough to say this – the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), in addition to being tasked with regulating Freedom of Information (FOI) law, must also comply with it, and anecdotal evidence suggested a long-standing failure to do so adequately (prior to, as well as during the COVID pandemic). That being the case – to whom should other public authorities look for exemplary guidance? Or put even more shortly – why should public authorities bother with compliance?

I now have some statistics.

I asked the ICO, under FOI, how many FOI cases it had failed to respond to within three months of their receipt (bear in mind that one month is the statutory limit). They have now told me that in 92 cases in the past year they have failed to respond to an FOI request within three months. Some cases are still open – in one, they have failed to reply to a request for 951 days and counting (I don’t know, and am almost beyond caring, whether these are calendar days or working days – it barely matters any more), and five cases are over a year old and still unanswered.

As I said previously, the ICO says that FOI enforcement may be appropriate where there are “repeated or significant failures to meet the time for compliance” and that, when deciding to take enforcement action, the ICO will take into account such factors as “the severity and/or repetition of the breach; whether there is evidence that obligations are being…persistently ignored; whether there would be an educative or deterrent affect; whether it would help clarify or test an issue; and whether an example needs to be created or a precedent set”.

A clearer case for (self-)enforcement action could scarcely be imagined.

Outgoing Commissioner Elizabeth Denham is handing her successor John Edwards a severe problem, both in terms of compliance but also – crucially – in terms of reputation of the office.

The views in this post (and indeed most 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, Freedom of Information, Information Commissioner, rule of law