Recent rulings by the Information Tribunal relating to vexatious requests could be a better answer to Government concerns over FOI than changes being mooted by the Ministry of Justice. At a briefing earlier today, Maurice Frankel of the Campaign for Freedom of Information argued that the Government’s proposals would be highly damaging to FOI and what’s more, were no longer necessary.
Maurice highlighted the Government’s intentions set out in the Ministry of Justice’s response to the post-legislative scrutiny carried out by the Justice Select Committee, and recently clarified by one Minister at a poorly attended Parliamentary debate. The key changes being looked at by the Ministry of Justice appear to be:
- reducing the “acceptable limit” set out in fees regulations above which FOI requests can be refused under section 12 of the Act;
- allowing public authorities to include consideration time in the assessment of this limit;
- allowing public authorities to aggregate the costs of complying with unrelated requests from the same person or group received within a 3 month period (currently they can only do this if someone makes a series of requests for similar information);
- charging for appeals to the Information Tribunal (First Tier and Upper).
Maurice described these proposals as the most damaging yet. Some of them are, however, very familiar. The inclusion of consideration time and aggregation proposals was consulted on in 2006/7 under Tony Blair, and dropped at the instigation of his successor. Could it be that civil servants have merely dusted off the old proposals to save themselves some time?
In any case, it may be that these proposals are now redundant. The Government’s main aim in introducing these changes appears to be to address situations in which requests are expensive to answer, but can’t, for technical reasons, be refused under the “acceptable limit” rules. But here’s where recent decisions of the Tribunal – at both levels – come in.
Last year I wrote about an important decision of the First Tier Tribunal which suggested that public authorities could refuse FOI requests under section 14 of the Act – the section dealing with vexatious requests – in a much wider set of circumstances than the Information Commissioner’s guidance had led us to believe. In particular, the Tribunal ruling offered the tantalising (for FOI Officers at least) possibility that requests could be refused under section 14 if they imposed a significant burden on the authority, even if there was no other reason to suggest the requests were vexatious.
Since then, a number of First Tier Tribunals have taken a similar line. However, strictly, decisions of the Information Commissioner or of the First Tier Tribunal cannot set precedents in the common law of England and Wales. This means that in theory at least, there is no legal reason why their decisions have to be consistent. But rulings of the Upper Tribunal and higher courts do set precedent. And we now have such a ruling in respect of vexatious requests.
The new ruling, from Judge Wikeley, appears to support the more common sense approach that the other Tribunals have moved towards. It doesn’t entirely dismiss the Information Commissioner’s established checklist approach, describing it as a useful guide, but favours a more “holistic” consideration of whether a request is vexatious or not.
“The presence, or absence, of a particular feature is not determinative. So one particular factor alone, present to a marked degree, may make a request vexatious even if no other factors are present. The question ultimately is this – is the request vexatious in the sense of being a manifestly unjustified, inappropriate or improper use of FOIA?”  UKUT 440 AAC, para. 43
(For a more in depth analysis of Judge Wikeley’s decision, I recommend Robin Hopkin’s post on the Panopticon Blog.)
The problem with the Government’s proposals is that they threaten to reduce the effectiveness of FOI for everyone. The inclusion of consideration time is likely to significantly reduce the amount of information that can be asked for, no matter what the public interest in disclosure. Similarly, if a journalist has to make a series of follow-up requests to get to the bottom of a legitimate story, he or she will soon use up the time allowed if the new aggregation rule is brought in. Indeed, they may prevent any of their colleagues being able to ask questions of the same authority within three months.
But the Tribunals’ approach offers a more nuanced answer to the problem of the excessive burden imposed by some FOI requests. It allows public authorities to refuse requests that are expensive to answer or are manifestly unreasonable, whilst encouraging them to consider carefully the wider context of the requests. That approach seems much more in line with the value that the Ministry of Justice claims to recognise in FOI, whilst meeting their stated concerns.
Let’s hope that someone at the Ministry of Justice reads about these decisions before it’s too late.