Tag Archive for FOI Section 12

Practically Speaking Part IV – take it to the (appropriate) limit

The fourth in FOIMan’s series for PDP’s Freedom of Information Journal covers the appropriate limit – when is it acceptable to refuse requests on cost grounds?

This time my article for PDP looked at section 12 of the UK FOI Act and the associated regulations that set out the circumstances in which public bodies can refuse requests because they will cost too much to answer.

 

The Exemption Index: Section 12 – refusing on grounds of cost

In this post, FOI Man looks at the provision within FOI to refuse requests which exceed “the appropriate limit”.

Summary

It’s the constant lament of some public authorities and critics of FOI. FOI costs money. It’s a drain on resources. Well, yes, but as you and I know well, it is also of considerable value and can help the taxpayer to hold those authorities to account.

Nonetheless, they’re right. FOI does cost money. And if there were no limits on what authorities had to provide, there is a risk that they would grind to a halt. Hospitals would cease caring for the sick so that they could answer FOI requests. Children would be sent home from school so that teachers could complete their FOI homework. The Prime Minister would be busily redacting his own correspondence when he wasn’t answering MPs’ questions.

Section 12 is therefore an essential tool – a tap to regulate the flow of FOI requests and their impact. But to requesters it is often seen as an easy way for public authorities to avoid difficult questions.

Information affected

Any information – it depends on how much is asked for, how difficult it is to locate, and how long it would take to extract.

Things that FOI Officers need to know

Things that requesters need to know

If you want to avoid a section 12 response:

  • don’t be greedy – keep your request tight and focussed
  • do research first – can you find out how the information is likely to be held?
  • read my handy guide to making FOI requests

It may well be worth challenging a response if:

  • the estimate and/or reasoning behind the estimate seem unreasonable
  • it doesn’t explain how to bring your request within the acceptable limit
  • it doesn’t tell you what the estimate is (the authority isn’t obliged to, but if its a reasonable estimate, they shouldn’t really have a problem with telling you)
  • you’ve asked several unrelated questions but the estimated cost of answering them has been aggregated
  • the authority has given you a subset of the information you requested but did not ask you first whether you would like that information, or would prefer to narrow your request in an alternative way (this is a breach of the section 16 duty to advise and assist).

Essential case law

Fitzsimmons v IC and DCMS (EA/2007/0124)

Quinn v IC and Home Office (EA/2006/0010)

Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police v Information Commissioner, [2011] EWHC 44 (Admin)

Craven v IC and DECC, [2012] UKUT 442 (AAC)

Recommended reading

Requests where the cost of compliance with a request exceeds the appropriate limit, Information Commissioner’s Office, version 1.1, September 2012

Wadham, J et al (2011), Blackstone’s Guide to the Freedom of Information Act 2000, 4th ed.

FOI Man says…

What can public authorities charge for Freedom of Information requests?, 11 July 2011

MOJ costs study – third strand of post-legislative scrutiny research, 26 March 2012