Tag Archive for Vexatious

Practically Speaking Part III – Getting Vexed

FOIMan brings you the third installment of his series for PDP’s Freedom of Information Journal.

In part III of the Practically Speaking series, I looked at the fraught subject of how to apply the provision for  vexatious requests under FOI. The piece was primarily informed by the important decisions made by Judge Wikeley back in February. As you’ll see from the postscript, things had moved on again by the time this piece came to print, but the key points I made here are broadly still relevant. And it features Monty Python and a judge riding to the rescue.

The next instalment covers the appropriate limit – when can requests be refused on cost grounds? Part V will cover whether information is held, before the series concludes (for now at least) with a look at the difficulties and ethics of who should be consulted before a response is sent out.

 

 

Information Commissioner signals new approach to vexatious requests

FOI Man reviews new guidance from the Information Commissioner around the controversial issue of vexatious requests.

Ever since the important decisions made by Judge Wikeley in the Upper Tribunal earlier this year, it has been inevitable that the Information Commissioner would have to change his approach to the use of the vexatious provision within FOI. Combined with suggestions in the post-legislative scrutiny last year that it should be easier for public authorities to refuse vexatious or frivolous requests, the Commissioner’s relative reticence in his guidance and decisions appeared out of step with political and legal developments.

So today, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has published new guidance on Dealing with Vexatious Requests (section 14(1)), as well as on the related subjects of Manifestly Unreasonable Requests (regulation 12(4)(b) of the Environmental Information Regulations) and Repeat Requests (section 14(2)). And the approach of the Commissioner appears to have changed fairly radically. The guidance starts strongly by stating that:

 “…public authorities ought not to regard Section 14(1) as something which is only to be applied in the most extreme circumstances, or as a last resort. Rather, we would encourage authorities to consider its use in any case where they believe the request is disproportionate or unjustified.”

The emphasis now is on requests which “cause a disproportionate or unjustified level of disruption, irritation or distress”. Out have gone the Commissioner’s notorious 5 questions. In their place come 13 – count ‘em – 13 “indicators” based on the ICO’s experience of dealing with section 14. These aren’t “qualifying criteria” and authorities are discouraged from spending too much time trying to fit the facts to them. It is stressed that they are there purely as a handy guide.

The guidance suggests a process for establishing if a request causes a disproportionate or unjustified level of work. Authorities should:

  1. consider the purpose of the request if apparent and any wider public interest
  2. balance this against the impact on the authority
  3. take the context and relevant history into account

The ICO have taken some key areas of contention and talked about how they might be affected by this new change in emphasis.

Burdensome requests should if possible be refused under section 12 (the acceptable cost limit). However, following on from last year’s Salford City Council v Information Commissioner Tribunal decision, the ICO now accept that section 14 could be used to ‘plug the gaps’ in the fees regulations, for example, where redaction would take a long time (redaction can’t be included in cost estimates for the purpose of section 12). It is clear though that the ICO will take some convincing in particular cases before accepting this use.

Round Robins, requests sent to several authorities at once, are mentioned. Public authorities can point to the fact that a request has been sent to other organisations, but the judgment as to whether a request is vexatious must only be made on the basis of the burden on themselves.

Controversially, perhaps, “fishing expeditions” are singled out, and journalists identified as the main perpetrators. This common tactic – where a requester makes a very broad request in the hope of catching a juicy titbit in their net – is widely criticised by public bodies, and one senses that the Commissioner has finally found a way to offer a modicum of reassurance to authorities on this issue. Whilst the Commissioner stops short of saying that all such requests will be vexatious (and indeed adds the usual caveats), it is interesting that the practice is highlighted as an area that might legitimately attract the use of section 14.

The guidance isn’t all one way. Authorities are warned that they need to “absorb” a certain amount of disruption and annoyance. And the guidance often seems to go out of its way to persuade public bodies to try just about anything else to avoid section 14. A whole section is dedicated to “Alternative approaches”. Nonetheless, the guidance does seem to indicate a significant change of emphasis from the ICO, and one that will be welcomed by many public authorities.

If you’re still hungry for more after all 37 pages on section 14(1) of FOI, there is still the guidance on manifestly unreasonable and repeated requests to digest. Handily for both the ICO and busy FOI Officers, Judge Wikeley found that the exception for manifestly unreasonable requests in the EIR should be interpreted in the same way as section 14(1) of FOI. So the first part of the ICO guidance says just that – if you think a request for environmental information is effectively vexatious, you should follow the guidance on vexatious requests under FOI.

It does however spend more time considering how the exception should be applied to requests that would be expensive to answer. In a nutshell, there will be circumstances where it is appropriate to refuse burdensome environmental requests under this provision (as Judge Wikeley noted in Craven), and section 12 (and the related fees regulations) of FOI may provide some pointers, but authorities should expect to provide more environmental information than they would other information.

The guidance on repeated requests (FOI section 14(2)) uses new improved examples to make the same points that have been made before. There is nothing fundamentally new here to take on board.

Interestingly, tied in with all this new guidance for public authorities is a guide for requesters on How should I word my request to get the best result? How can I describe it? It’s…it’s…well, it’s a sort of Code of Practice for requesters on the best ways to avoid being labelled as vexatious. That reminds me of something…. (see Recommendation 7)

Anyway, the guide contains some handy dos and don’ts and advises requesters that their request will be more effective if it is CLEAR, SPECIFIC, FOCUSED, UNTHREATENING. Whilst those are the ICO’s capitals, many FOI Officers would probably add SPARSELY CAPITALISED. Seriously though, it will be helpful if more prospective requesters can be pointed towards guidance like this.

So overall this new guidance will be welcomed by FOI Officers, though with some reservation. Whilst it answers a lot of questions, some may well ask how a single sentence in the Act can require so many pages of explanation. There are points where the ICO appear to want to have their cake (to be seen to encourage public authorities to utilise this provision) and to eat it as well (to be seen to discourage its use). One can understand why the regulator has difficulty here, but it limits the comfort that might be offered to authorities by this guidance. And until we see decisions of both Commissioner and Tribunals backing the approaches spelt out here, many will remain nervous of using this provision. But this is a significant step in the right direction.

The Exemption Index: Section 14 – Vexatious requests

In the first of a new series, FOI Man looks at section 14 of the Freedom of Information Act – covering vexatious requests – and what every FOI Officer – and every requester – needs to know about it.

Summary

If you’ve ever watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail, you’ll recall King Arthur’s encounter with the Black Knight. The knight challenges him to combat. They battle. Arthur chops his arm off and claiming victory, makes to leave. But the knight, in denial of all sense (yes, I know it’s a comedy, but bear with me on this), won’t accept defeat and insists that Arthur keep fighting. No matter how many limbs Arthur lops off, the knight is insistent that the conflict continue. Eventually Arthur walks off whilst the knight, now literally without a leg to stand on, continues to shout after him.

But when you’re providing a public service and legally obliged to respond to enquiries, you can’t just walk off. Or can you?

That’s what section 14 provides for. FOI Officers rarely deal with medieval knights, but we are familiar with that kind of bloody-minded (if not bloody-bodied) determination. There are people who refuse to take no for an answer. There are others who are more like an attention-seeking child repeatedly prodding its older sibling or a kitten jumping up and down on a weary old dog. The answers aren’t necessarily important – it’s about provoking a response.

More recently, it’s becoming clear that section 14 is FOI’s answer to gluttony. It can be used to refuse requests where one request threatens to eat the public authority out of house and home.

Information affected

Virtually anything. It’s the nature of the request itself that triggers this provision, not the information requested.

Things that FOI Officers need to know

  • “Vexatious” isn’t defined in the Act. So the case law and guidance that is available is essential to understanding how it can be used.
  • Vexatious requests have to be refused in writing. Allowing the requester to appeal the decision through internal review is a good idea given the controversial nature of these refusals.
  • When considering whether a request should be refused as being vexatious, Justice Wikeley, who analysed section 14 in detail as part of an Upper Tribunal decision, suggests four things to consider: the burden, the motive, the value or serious purpose, and whether the request causes distress or harassment to staff.
    • The burden – consider the number of requests previously made; the breadth of the request (but consider asking them to narrow their request or refusing on cost grounds first); the pattern of requests (eg are several made within days of each other?); and the duration (has this been going on for some time, and does this suggest it will continue in the future?). Recent case law suggests that where requests can’t be refused on cost grounds (section 12 – for example if it would take a long time to read through and redact material), section 14 may be used. However, it is still unclear where the line can be drawn – the information in these cases ran to thousands of pages. The key, almost certainly, is going to be to demonstrate that the work involved is disproportionate (see paras 15 and 16) – and that will vary depending on the size and complexity of the organisation, and of course what the purpose of the request is.
    • Motive – you can’t be “purpose-blind” in considering this aspect of FOI. It will often be difficult to be sure what someone’s motive is. In many cases, where you do know – eg you know the requester is a journalist researching a story – it is likely to be a reason NOT to use section 14.
    • Value or serious purpose – obviously closely connected to considerations of motive. And equally difficult. It might be that a series of requests starts out as having an obvious purpose (eg finding out information relating to a legitimate complaint), but over time “drifts” into vexatiousness as the requester draws in more and more unconnected issues. FOI Officers should never consider using section 14 purely because they can’t see a serious purpose or value behind a request – only if there are other reasons to think a request is vexatious.
    • Causing harassment and distress to staff – if a request (or series of requests) appears to target an individual obsessively, is aggressive or uses what Justice Wikeley describes as “intemperate language”, it can be used as evidence that a request is vexatious. It is probably safest to be able to point to other reasons as well.
  • Case law increasingly supports a “holistic” interpretation. As Justice Wikeley put it (para 45), the danger is “not being able to see the vexatious wood for all the individual trees”. Basically, listen to your gut.
  • EIR requests – regulation 12(4)(b) – “manifestly unreasonable” – is broadly equivalent to FOI’s section 14 (para 30). Therefore much of what is said here will apply to that exception.
  • Repeated requests – for a long time, section 14(2) of FOI, covering repeated requests, has been talked about as being a separate provision. Justice Wikeley thinks it should be seen more as a subset of vexatious requests.

Things that requesters need to know

  • Vexatious sounds bad. Most people aren’t going to like being called vexatious. But don’t take it too personally if you receive a response citing section 14 – the flip side of recent case law is that requests might well be classed as vexatious even if you had no intention to annoy. It is fundamentally a tool to help public authorities manage the workload of FOI, just as section 12 and the fees regulations are.
  • Avoiding getting a request refused under section 14 – don’t get personal. Asking questions about an individual member of staff (eg “I want to know how much John Smith has claimed in expenses?”) is likely to get people wondering if you’re trying to harass Mr Smith, especially in the context of a long standing correspondence or dispute with that member of staff. If the FOI Officer asks you to narrow down your request, be cooperative, especially if they explain that it will take a long time to review and redact relevant material. If you ask about zombies, aliens and the supernatural, you’re just as likely to receive a refusal under section 14 as you are to receive a witty response – quite rightly as you’re wasting taxpayers’ money.
  • Challenging a decision – demonstrate that your request has a serious purpose; question how much work the authority is claiming is involved and whether it imposes a disproportionate burden (for example, a Government department is more likely to have the resources to review 1000 pages of information than, say, your local GP surgery); keep calm – otherwise you may just compound the impression of an obsessive person causing undue harassment.

Essential case law

Recommended reading

FOI Man says…

 

Could Wikeley make FOI changes less likely?

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?” [2012] 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.

Is the Tribunal getting touchy?

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?