Vexatious requests – new Tribunal decision

Just a quick post from me today to flag up an interesting Tribunal decision on vexatious requests (s.14 of the Act). The case is particularly interesting as both the Tribunal and the Commissioner are seen to support the use of the provision to defend against the FOI equivalent of ‘Denial of Service’ attacks.

The decision is also entertaining in its descriptions of the lengths that the University concerned and the Information Commissioner went to to establish that a number of individuals were acting in concert.

5 comments

  1. S Jones says:

    Awesome …

    In terms of precedent setting, I like para 23 – which strengthens any case in relation to imposition of an unreasonable burden on resources when multiple requests are received from the same person or connected people beyond “normal” levels of volume for the organisation.

    It must be Friday, because I’m finding para 35 hilarious – I wonder whether the university staff members who the appellant claimed felt harassed “because they were generally unpopular” were part of the unfortunate FOI team? ‘cos we are sometimes extremely unpopular [grin].

  2. Alistair says:

    Hi FOI Man,
    This comment is off topic, but I am interested in what your view on the following is.
    I have seen a lot of responses from public authorities that simply do not comply with the rules set out within the FOI legislation (most of these have been from Scottish Public Authorities and therefore fall under the FOISA provisions). However, what I have noticed is that the responses are coming from people who are not identified as FOI Officers. I began to think that maybe the requests are being passed from the FOI Officer to the relevant department with that department having responsibility for sending out the response in these authorities (it would certainly explain that failure to comply with the provisions of the Act). These responses have often been so poor that it’s resulted in a request for review. One does have to wonder whether public authorities should have their FOI experts check all responses before they’re issued. This may be take time, but would the time taken by an FOI officer to look over a response to check it’s compliant be less than the time and resources that would be spent on the inevitable request for review after a non-compliant response that makes no sense?

    • admin says:

      Good question Alistair. It’s pretty normal practice for authorities to distribute requests to relevant depts. If the organisation is very big and gets lots of requests, it makes sense. And in truth, not all FOI Officers are experienced and knowledgeable – so even a centralised approach won’t necessarily mean your request is handled correctly. Often in a decentralised system the internal reviews are conducted by the trained FOI staff, so always worth putting in an appeal if you’re not happy with the response. But always going to be debatable which approach is better.

  3. John says:

    An interesting precedent although 100+ requests within a three month period sets a pretty high bar! This does raise the issue of whether pseudonyms are appropriate for FOI requests.

  4. Damien Shannon says:

    You have clearly misunderstood the case. Neither the University in question nor the Commissioner went to any great lengths whatever in order to determine links between those requesting information – this was simply presumed owing to the rapidity, volume and similarity of the requests.

    The case is currently under appeal and I am involved in drafting the appeal documents and – in the event a hearing is convened before the Upper Administrative Tribunal – will be presenting the case for the appellant.

    I have argued that the Commissioner and Tribunal’s conclusions that the Appellant’s actions were a causative factor of the volume, rapidity and similarity of requests needs to be set against the national press interest in the subject matter which formed the basis of the requests.

    The press interest aforementioned predates the activities of the appellant, who drew attention to the subject matter through newsletters, blogs etc. The University held an independent inquiry into the subject matter which formed the basis of many of the requests and the outcome was at the very least ambiguous.

    Thus there are several arguments that can be made:

    1) The requests submitted by people other than the Appellant arguably had a serious purpose owing to the heightened public and internal University interest in their subject matter. That is to say, the primary objective was not one of disrupting the workings of the public authority.

    2) It is arguable that public press speculation motivated the other requesters and the Appellant’s actions must be weighed up against this before any ‘causative factor’ conclusions can fairly be reached.

    I do not know whether these arguments will affect the substantive legal conclusions reached by the IC and Tribunal (upholding the characterisation of the requests as vexatious), but this balancing act must surely be performed in order to make any conclusion valid.

    The First Tier Tribunal simply failed to do this.