FOIMan suggests some tips for anyone who’s not happy with the response they’ve received to their FOI request.

Sometimes I receive enquiries asking for help with an FOI request that’s been refused. Often they’ll even say that they’re prepared to pay for help. I don’t provide commercial services to private individuals, so I never take them up on the offer.

One reason I don’t provide this kind of service is that 99% of the time there is nothing that I could do that they can’t do themselves. The problem I think is that because FOI is a law, people think they need some specialist knowledge to make anything happen. Unfortunately, this impression is often encouraged by public authorities’ responses which, by accident or by design, can sometimes be very officious.

Both sides need to remember that FOI is meant to be available to anyone, without specialist knowledge. There’s no need to quote sections of the FOI Act in a response, and nor is there any need for a request or even a request for internal review to be drafted like a solicitor’s letter.

So a few tips for anyone making an FOI request, and particularly if you’re not happy with a response.

  1. A few years ago I was asked for advice on making FOI requests and I wrote my guide to making FOI requests – hopefully it’s still useful for anyone who makes requests.
  2. If you’re not happy with the response, read it again carefully. You might not like it but perhaps the arguments make sense. If so, you might have to accept that you can’t take it further. At least you know why (if it was answered properly).
  3. If you’re still not convinced, you do not need any specialist knowledge or form of words to ask the authority to reconsider. Just reply to their response or follow the instructions they’ve provided on how to complain/make an internal review. You don’t even need to explain what it is that you think is wrong – though obviously if you’re able to that will help ensure that the authority responds to your specific concerns. But requesting a review of your response can be as simple as: Thank you for your response. I would be grateful if you could reconsider.
  4. If you’ve had a response to your internal review request, and you are still not content, you can appeal to the Information Commissioner. Even then, you don’t need any specialist knowledge – just complete the form on the Commissioner’s website. It’s up to them to figure out whether the authority has complied.
  5. Beyond the ICO, there are further stages of appeal where it would be helpful to have access to specialist knowledge. But it will be very rare that you need to go that far to get the correct answer (which isn’t necessarily the same as the answer you would like to receive!).

Basically, if you think a public authority is wrong to refuse your request, you don’t need anyone’s help to get it looked at again. And certainly you don’t need to spend money to make it happen.