The Scottish Information Commissioner - It's Public Knowledge
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Applying for Information

Do I have to make a special request for any information held by a public authority?

You won't have to make a special request for any information which is already published by the public authority. Such information will be described in their publication scheme, which is a document listing the types of information which the authority has already made available and giving details of how you can access the information. The publication scheme should be available on the authority's website, or provided on request.

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What about information which is not listed in a publication scheme?

You can generally request any information which is not already listed in the authority's publication scheme, but there are some situations which may allow the public authority to withhold specific information. Such information is said to be "exempt" from disclosure, and includes information which would threaten national security, or would "substantially prejudice" the effective conduct of public affairs or the administration of justice. There are other types of information which can be withheld in certain circumstances, such as trade secrets, personal information and information intended for publication within 12 weeks.

Many of these exemptions are subject to a "public interest" test, which means that even if an exemption applies, it should still be released if release would be in the public interest. The Act makes it quite clear that the balance should always lie in favour of releasing the information.

If the information you request is not supplied, the public authority has to make clear why it is withholding the information. If you believe they should not have withheld the information you can ask the Scottish Information Commissioner to investigate.

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How do I apply to a public authority to get information from them?

Any request made to a public authority in writing is regarded as a request under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act (the FOI Act), as long as it contains your name and a contact address, and a description of the information you are seeking.  You do not have to refer to the FOI Act but you do have to make the request in writing or in another recorded way that can be used for further reference e.g. by e-mail.

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Do I have to provide my real name and my full address when I ask for information?

The FOI Act says that a request must include the name of the applicant and an address for correspondence. In terms of your address, either your full postal address or your email address will be fine. 

You will need to provide your full real name.   If you don't use your real name the authority won't have to provide the information, and you won't be able to appeal to the Commissioner.  At the very least, your request should include your initial and your surname.

If you send your request by email, remember to put your name in the text of the email.  Even if your name appears in your email address (e.g. john.smith@hotmail.com) you must add your name to the text of your request, so that it is clear who the email is from.

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Can freedom of information requests be made using sites such as Facebook and twitter?

In theory it is possible that requests can be made via sites such as Facebook and twitter, but to be valid they still have to comply with section 8 of the FOI Act, which requires that requests state the name and address of the applicant and an address for correspondence as well, of course, as describing the information requested.

Requests which are anonymous or which use pseudonyms will not be valid.  This is less likely to be an issue with Facebook (Facebook asks users to provide their real name), but may cause problems with twitter.  Although it may be possible to find out the real name of the applicant through a twitter user's linked profile, the Commissioner takes the view that, for the request to be valid, the name of the requester must be evident from the tweet itself.

As mentioned above, you must also include an address for correspondence.  Given the restrictions on responding (see below), it is preferable if the request contains an email or postal address where a response may be sent.

Where your request does not specify the name of the applicant or an address for correspondence, public authorities should, in line with their duty to provide advice and assistance under section 15 of the FOI Act, tell you what you have to do to make the request valid and how best to use your information rights.  Often, the easiest option will be for the authority to ask you to make a new request via email or suggest they use www.whatdotheyknow.com.  However, if the information can easily be provided, public authorities may instead choose just to disclose the information, while making you aware that the request is in fact invalid.

Public authorities are likely to face difficulties replying to requests made via Facebook or twitter, particularly if they are refusing to disclose information (given the need to issue a notice complying with section 16 of the FOI Act) or are disclosing large amount of information.  (As is well known, twitter only allows messages of up to 140 characters.)  In order to comply with the FOI Act, public authorities must "give" applicants information (see section 1(1)) or "give" a notice (see e.g. section 16(1)) explaining why the information is not being provided.  It is not yet clear whether providing applicants with a link where they can access the information or read the notice is sufficient to comply with this duty, although applicants are perhaps unlikely to complain if information is provided, or a notice is given, in this way.  Again, the best solution may be for the authority to ask you to provide an email or postal address to allow the authority to "give" a response or suggest they use www.whatdotheyknow.com.

The Commissioner has not yet received any applications for a decision following on from a request made via Facebook or twitter and this is new and untested area.  Decisions as to whether requests (and subsequent applications) are valid will be made on a case by case basis and this guidance will be updated to reflect any decisions made.

Public authorities should also be aware that requests for environmental information made under the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 (the EIRs) may, given that there is no express requirement to provide an address for correspondence, be more likely to be valid if made via Facebook or twitter than requests under the FOI Act.

Finally, authorities need to remember that they are under a duty to provide advice and assistance to you. So, if you are trying to make a request through Facebook or twitter, the authority should respond.

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Can I apply for information on behalf of another person?

Yes. There is nothing to stop you making an application on behalf of another person. However, if you are making a request on behalf of someone else, you must provide the name of the "true" applicant (i.e. the name of the person you are applying on behalf of). If you do not, the public authority will have the right to refuse to deal with your request on the basis that it is invalid. Public authorities have a duty to advise and assist you, so if they believe your request is invalid, for any reason, they must provide you with reasonable advice, which might include helping you to make a valid request. While you have to provide an address for communication, it does not have to be the address of the "true" applicant (although you can supply this if you want to).

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Can I ask for information relating to a case I am working on, but without actually naming the client?

Organisations may wish to make information requests in relation to cases they are working on, without naming the actual client. The FOI Act does not prohibit such organisations making requests on their own behalf, rather than on behalf of a client or someone who the organisation may represent in some way.

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What if a public authority asks me if I am making my request on behalf of someone else?

If a public authority asks you if you are making a request on behalf of someone else, you are under no obligation to answer that query - but if your request is not on behalf of someone else, it would usually be a good idea to say so, to avoid delays. If you choose not to respond to the public authority, then it must have reasonable grounds for believing that your request was made on behalf of someone else before it can decide your request is invalid.

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What if a public authority tells me my request is invalid because they believe I am asking on behalf of another, unnamed party?

If a public authority refuses your request on these grounds, you can follow the review procedures in the FOI Act i.e. request a review and ultimately appeal to the Commissioner. In the event of an appeal, if the authority cannot show the Commissioner that the request was made on behalf of another person, the Commissioner will overturn the authority's decision and, in some cases, may simply order the release of the information.

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Can I ask for copies of documents?

The FOI Act gives people the right to recorded information, rather than an entitlement to copies of specific documents. This does not mean, however, that requests for documents are automatically invalid. "Documents" come in a range of formats, including (but not necessarily restricted to) paper files and documents and reports, video or sound recordings, maps, correspondence, microfiche and microfilm, or other electronic formats. You should describe the information you want, as clearly and precisely as possible, in order to help the public authority identify and locate it. That might include referring to documents which contain the information you want. This is likely to be valid, as long as your request describes the information you want in such a way that the public authority can identify and locate it.

(If you are asking for environmental information, however, the EIRs do give you a right to copies of specific documents on request.)

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What if a public authority tells me my request is invalid because I have asked for documents and not adequately described the information I want?

Public authorities have a duty to advise and assist you, so if they believe your request is invalid, for any reason, they must provide you with reasonable advice, which might include helping you to make a valid request. You could contact them for advice on how to describe the information you want in a way that enables them to identify and locate it.

If, however, an authority decides to treat your request as invalid, you can follow the review procedures in the FOI Act i.e. request a review and ultimately appeal to the Commissioner. If the Commissioner comes to the view that the request was in fact valid, the Commissioner will overturn the authority's decision, and in some cases may simply order the release of the information.

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How do I know I'm writing to the correct public authority?

The authority will inform you if it does not hold the information you are requesting. It may be aware of where the information is held in which case it has a duty to assist you by suggesting another public authority to which you should submit your request.

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Will my request for information cost me anything?

Most requests should be dealt with free of charge and where a fee is charged it is likely to be small.  If the cost to the authority is more than �100 but �600 or less, the authority can charge you 10% of the cost of providing the information, but the first ?100 is always free. So the maximum it can charge you in most situations is ?50 (this would be where the cost to the authority is ?600).  If the total cost to the authority is more than ?600 the authority can refuse your request.

If, however, you are asking for environmental information, then it is dealt with under the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 (the EIRs) and the above fees regulations do not apply.  An authority can charge you a fee which does not exceed a "reasonable amount", i.e. no more than the cost to the authority of providing it to you.  The "?100 free" and ?600 upper limit do not apply to charges for environmental information.  An authority cannot charge, however, for access to public registers or lists of environmental information, or to inspect environmental information on-site at the authority.

Most information in a publication scheme is free of charge or available for a small fee. If there is a charge, the scheme must show details of the charges.

The charge for providing some information, such as birth, marriage and death certificates, may be set by other laws.

See "What might it cost?" for more information.

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What happens if I am not happy with the response I get from a Scottish public authority?

If you are not happy with the decision of the authority you can ask them to review their decision. If you are still dissatisfied after they have reviewed their decision you can then (and only then) make an application for determination by the Scottish Information Commissioner. The Commissioner can then investigate the decision and determine whether you should receive the information requested in full or in part, or whether the authority's decision should be upheld.

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What happens if the Commissioner's decision is ignored?

If the Commissioner's decision is not complied with, then the Commissioner has the power to take action in court.

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