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Vexatious and irresponsible questions

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Martin Rosenbaum | 08:17 UK time, Tuesday, 14 July 2009

I know from personal experience that making freedom of information requests to public authorities is something they sometimes find irritating - but at what point does it become vexatious or irresponsible?

This question is raised by some recent rulings on what constitutes legitimate use of the Freedom of Information Act.

In a decision published last week, the information commissioner determined that the local government ombudsman was right to dismiss an FOI request as 'vexatious'. This was the 48th request in a series made to the LGO by one individual in a six-month period.

The complainant is clearly concerned about the effectiveness of local authority complaints procedures, having submitted hundreds of FOI applications on the topic to various authorities. However the commissioner found his arguments "unconvincing" and "not considered to be properly anchored in sound evidence", concluding that the "the request could fairly be considered obsessive and manifestly unreasonable" and was therefore vexatious.

Under the FOI Act, a request can be refused if it's vexatious, but this has to be an issue about the request itself, not the person making it. Just because you are a really annoying person is not sufficient grounds for turning down your freedom of information applications.

In this case the request, along with many other requests by the same person, was made through the whatdotheyknow site. This site is certainly regarded as very vexing by numerous public authority FOI officers, who particularly don't like the way it automatically publishes all the correspondence in connection with a request.

In a different case, the High Court has just ruled that there is nothing necessarily wrong in making a meta-request - a request about how your other requests have been handled. The journalist Matt Davis put such a question to the Home Office, suspecting that he was getting worse treatment than the general public in the 48 requests he'd made to the Home Office (this was over a two-year period).

The Home Office argued that such meta-requests "are an arguably permissible, but irresponsible, use of the Act" which "could be used as a 'backdoor method' of obtaining information which had previously been withheld." But these arguments were rejected by the judge, who backed the earlier opinion of the Information Tribunal
that "meta-requests should be dealt with in the same way as any other requests".

So if your FOI request is turned down as vexatious, is it irresponsible to put in a meta-request about how it was handled?


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