The duty to advise and assist

Under FOI law, authorities have a duty to advise and assist people who want to access their information. The duty to advise and assist makes sure that customer service and customer engagement are central to FOI practice.

Taking a positive and proactive approach to the duty to advise and assist will strengthen relations with service users and help build trust. Offering help, support and guidance to people looking for information will also reduce the likelihood of more FOI requests.

Legal requirement

The FOI Act requires authorities to provide reasonable advice and assistance to people who have made, or are planning to make, a request for information (section 15).

The EIRs contain a similar provision for requests for environmental information (regulation 9).

Both the FOI Act and the EIRs say that authorities which comply with the Scottish Ministers' FOI Code of Practice when providing advice and assistance are complying with the duty under FOI law.

Steps to take

  1. Review the Scottish Ministers' FOI Code of Practice guidance on the duty to advise and assist (see Part 2, section 5).
  2. Make sure you make reference to the duty to advise and assist throughout your FOI processes and procedures.
  3. Train your staff. Make sure everyone is aware of the organisation's duty to advise and assist people seeking information. Make sure staff responding to requests are trained on the specific requirements contained in the Scottish Ministers' FOI Code of Practice.

Best practice tips

  • Involve senior management - make sure they understand the new statutory duties and ask them to promote the benefits of a customer-focused approach to FOI across the organisation
  • Let people know you have a duty to help them - just telling people about your duty to assist can support positive relationships
  • Use clear language - FOI is a legal process, but do what you can to help people understand it. Explain your decisions clearly, thinking about their needs
  • Don't forget the phone -the legal side of FOI is normally done in writing, but talking through an issue with a requester can support better outcomes
  • Remember that the duty applies at every stage of an FOI request - for example:
    • Before a request is made - you can provide guidance on how to make a request; advice on what information your authority is likely to hold and why it's not likely to hold other information; information on what you already publish and how it can be accessed; etc.
    • During the request - ask for clarification quickly if the request is unclear; tell the requester what you could provide within the cost limit if it applies; clearly explain the reasons for your decisions and actions; etc.
    • After the request - offer to provide explanation or clarification if the requester has any questions and be ready to advise on any follow up requests.


See also

 The duty to publish information

 The duty to respond to requests

 Managing FOI

 Resources for RSLs

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