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The rule of law

Martin Rosenbaum | 14:34 UK time, Wednesday, 4 June 2008

If a court takes a decision you don't like, what should you do about it?

One possible response is to tell everyone to ignore it, although that's probably not the reaction you'd expect from the Ministry of Justice, the government department which oversees the country's judicial system.

Yet that's what it's been doing, according to Maurice Frankel of the Campaign for Freedom of Information in a speech given to the FOILive conference yesterday. He drew attention to several cases where MoJ guidance on how to process FOI requests appears to conflict with Information Tribunal decisions.

For example, does the time taken to redact information count when deciding if a request is too costly to process? The MoJ says yes, the Tribunal says no.

Belinda Crowe of the MoJ responded to Frankel by saying that the MoJ was sticking to its position where it thought the Tribunal had misinterpreted the law. However my guess would be that officials who tell the Information Commissioner that they decided to follow the MoJ's interpretation of the law in preference to the Tribunal's are unlikely to impress him.

The conference also heard about the continuing difficulties faced by the Information Commissioner's Office in reducing its large backlog of complaints. Richard Thomas, the Commissioner, revealed that at the end of March 7% of his caseload had been with him for over two years and another 25% for over one year. Further details will be given in his annual report next month.

The problems of delay were also highlighted by Maurice Frankel, who reported the results of current CFoI research into the time the Commissioner takes to initiate investigations in those cases which lead to formal decision notices. These tend to be the harder and more important cases which can't be dismissed on obvious procedural errors or resolved informally.

His sample showed that the ICO took an average of 258 days to first make contact with the public authority subject to the complaint involved. In the most extreme case it had taken 586 days after receiving a complaint before it first contacted the Home Office about it.

Belinda Crowe also talked about how the government is hoping to turn some of the negative stories into good news stories by at least taking credit for releasing information which should be released. She added that it is still putting together a 'package of next steps' on the question of extending FOI to other bodies.


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