1. What should I do if a Freedom of Information officer passes on my request to the press office?
Under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act, all authorities receiving information requests must treat them in an ‘applicant blind’ manner. This means who you are or what you do for a living shouldn’t make a difference to the outcome of the FOI request. Authorities also have to be ‘motive blind.’ They can speak to you to clarify queries about your request, but can’t seek to establish your motive or reason for asking for information. If a council press officer does contact you about your FOI request to ask why you submitted it, clearly the authority is being neither applicant blind or motive blind.
2. The council press officer tells me not to use FOI because it takes so long and to just ask them for the information instead. Should I do this?
It’s up to you and your relationship with that press officer. When you submit a Freedom of Information request, the council (or other body) has to consider whether it should release that information and has a limited set of reasons for refusing to release that information. You also have the right to appeal if information is not released to you under the Freedom of Information Act. Dealings with council press officers aren’t covered by any legislation and it’s quite likely that the council press officer will want to release information which shows the council in a positive light. That said, they just want to help you get information more quickly. Maybe.
3. Can’t the FOI officer just tell me my request is vexatious if they don’t want to release the information?
There are limited circumstances where a request can be described as vexatious, but the Information Commissioner’s guidance states that it is ‘unlikely’ that an individual FOI request could be treated as vexatious. The Commissioner says that to decide a request is vexatious, the authority must feel it is one of the following:
- Obsessive: The authority should look to the history of FOI requests from the requester relating to the same issue. The commissioner’s guidance states: ‘Relevant factors could include a very high volume and frequency of correspondence, requests for information the requester has already seen, or a clear intention to use the request to reopen issues that have already been considered.
- Harassment: The authority here has to believe that an FOI would lead to the harassment ‘of a reasonable person.’ However, it is the request itself, rather than the impact of information being released as a result of the request, that have to be considered. The Commissioner states here: “Relevant issues here could include a very high volume and frequency of correspondence, the use of hostile, abusive or offensive language, an unreasonable fixation on an individual member of staff, or mingling requests with accusations and complaints.”
- Disruption: Authorities can refuse requests if they feel that the main purpose of the request is to cause disruption or distraction to an authority. However, the authority must be able to prove this is the case, and the Commission states: “As this factor relates to the actual intention of the requester, it can be difficult to prove. Cases where this is a strong argument will be rare. However, if a requester states that the request is actually meant to cause maximum inconvenience, the request will almost certainly be vexatious.”
- Purpose or value: An authority can say there is no real value to an FOI request, but this alone cannot be enough to cause it be vexatious. This point can only be used to support other points listed above. However, the Commissioner also states that it may be the case that the fact the FOI request has a serious purpose can stop it being vexatious, even if it is causing some concern around points one to three above.
So in short, authorities can’t just say a request is vexatious without have good grounds to, so the emphasis is with the reporter to make sure they don’t give an authority good grounds to say it is vexatious. Being polite can go a long way here.