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Don't mention the throne

Martin Rosenbaum | 16:13 UK time, Friday, 12 October 2007

The Freedom of Information Act is supposed to be 'applicant-blind'. What this piece of jargon means is that a freedom of information request should be treated in exactly the same way whoever makes it. In practice it doesn't always work like that.

According to a decision last week from the Information Tribunal, the National Archives appears not to have abided by this principle, when it turned down a wide-ranging FOI request because the applicant could not provide enough documentation to substantiate his claim that he is the illegitimate son of Princess Margaret.

The applicant, an accountant from Jersey named Robert Brown, seems to have felt this left him in a Catch-22 situation, as he replied 'If I had sufficient evidence to substantiate a claim I would not find myself in the frustrating position of having to search all possible archives'.

Mr Brown - or should that be Viscount? - proceeded to make 637 more specific requests to the National Archives (TNA) 'on the grounds previously stated'. TNA decided to try to deal with these requests in batches. The way it did so met with the approval of the Information Commissioner, but not of the Tribunal which has now over-ruled the Commissioner. Having looked at the decisions, my view is that TNA's system for batching its work on this was co-operative and reasonable although not within the letter of the law.

Still, however applicant-blind the law is meant to be, I'd recommend that you do not accompany an FOI request with a claim to be 12th in line to the throne (unless, of course, you are Viscount Linley, in which case it may help speed up the response if you draw attention to this fact).

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