FOI Man suggests that a new decision from the Information Tribunal seems to reflect an awareness of wider developments in FOI.
Despite all the conflicting messages coming out of the evidence to the Justice Select Committee’s post-legislative scrutiny of FOI, there was one issue that appeared to attract a relative degree of consensus. The MoJ, the Information Commissioner, public authorities, and some bloke called Paul Gibbons, all agreed that the provision for dealing with vexatious requests at section 14 of the Act needed attention. And it seems like the members of the Information Tribunal First-Tier (or at least some of them) have been following events at the post-legislative scrutiny closely.
The problem with section 14 (or more specifically section 14(1)), is that “vexatious” isn’t defined in the Act. Generally the Commissioner and Tribunals in the past have said that it should be understood to have its normal English meaning. But in practice, at different times, they appear to have had different understandings of what that is. Which is helpful, clearly.
We know that some individuals use the Act to make requests that have no serious purpose. Whether it be requests for zombie invasion plans or for expenditure on red pens, they don’t do FOI any favours – especially when the Act itself is under review.
And it seems that the Information Tribunal First-Tier (or at least those members who considered this case) takes this view. In a decision published last week, they ruled that the Independent Police Complaints Commission did not have to provide information requested by an individual and upheld the authority’s use of section 14(1). In doing so, they over-ruled the Commissioner, and argued that his approach to section 14(1) was too restrictive. They were also unequivocally critical of the requester himself.
The decision itself is interesting, in that it will give some encouragement to FOI Officers who have often felt discouraged by the Commissioner’s decisions and guidance from using this provision even when it might reasonably be seen as justified (despite the fact that the Commissioner has regularly and publicly encouraged them to use it more). But what is most interesting to me is that the decision appears to make reference to developments in and around the post-legislative scrutiny, when it says at paragraph 19 that:
“Abuse of the right to information under s.1 of FOIA is the most dangerous enemy of the continuing exercise of that right for legitimate purposes. It damages FOIA and the vital rights that it enacted in the public perception.”
The Tribunal also looked at refusal on the grounds of cost in this case (even though it arguably didn’t have to, given that it upheld the use of s.14(1)). The decision supports a fairly broad interpretation of the regulation 5(2) provision in the FOI fees regulations allowing public authorities to aggregate costs of requests for “similar” information received within a 60 working day period.
Again, arguably this could be interpreted by some as an attempt by the Tribunal to demonstrate that they support a pragmatic approach by public authorities. Could it be that the Tribunal has been stung by recent criticism from those such as Lord O’Donnell giving evidence at the Justice Committee’s hearings?