Decisions Round-up: 01 to 05 May 2017

There's some useful guidance for requesters in this week's round-up, including a case where a poorly-worded request had the effect of narrowing an authority's search so much that it couldn't find the information the requester was actually looking for....

We also have advice on when an individual's personal data may - and may not - be released under FOI, and details of our resolved cases from April.

Learning points:

  • When requesting information be as clear as possible in describing what you're looking for
    Requesters can't be expected to know exactly what a public authority holds, but they should try to be as clear as possible when describing what they're looking for. An ambiguous request, or one which contains incorrect information, can lead to problems for authorities when searching for information.

    In Decision 057/2017 the requester asked for information about an event, but described it using the name of an organisation not directly associated with the event. In this case, it would have been better for the requester to simply describe the event, as the use of an incorrect name meant that the authority's search was limited to events planned by that particular organisation. As a result, no information was found. Take care when drafting requests, to avoid any similar pitfalls.


  • FOI isn't the right route for getting your own personal data (and won't always be the right one for getting other people's)
    Under the Data Protection Act, you can access your own personal data (i.e. information about you). This isn't information that should be generally available to the world at large, so it's exempt from disclosure under FOI.

    The position's more complex when it comes to the personal data of other people. In many circumstances this should not be disclosed under FOI; although there will be some occasions where release is appropriate. For example, there will be circumstances where personal information about public officials should be made available (although their privacy rights must be considered, and a balancing exercise carried out). This was a feature of Decision 060/2017, which centred on a whistleblowing investigation.

    The decision also considered whether personal data relating to the complainant and other witnesses should be disclosed. People who are involved in an investigation will often have an expectation of confidentiality, and this needs to be given appropriate weight when balancing the interests of the affected individuals against those of the requester.

    Our guidance on applying the personal information exemption has more advice on this challenging area.  


  • Authorities - can you evidence that harm will occur?
    When an authority withholds information, it has to be able to demonstrate that an exemption (or EIR exception) applies. Many of these contain a harm test (usually substantial prejudice) and the authority must provide focused arguments which explain how the harm will occur. When preparing these, bear in mind that the passage of time can often reduce the likelihood of harm, and think about whether the information actually relates to the kinds of things that the exemption/exception was designed to cover. In Decision 061/2017 we were not persuaded by an authority's evidence, and ordered disclosure.

Decisions issued:

  •  Decision 057/2017 David Bryce and Glasgow City Council
    The Council was asked for a copy of Police Scotland's de-brief report on a "Better Together" procession held on 30 July 2016.

    The Council told Mr Bryce that it did not hold the report and later gave some advice on information which it did hold about two processions on 30 July 2016. The Commissioner investigated and found the Council's response to have been appropriate in the circumstances.


  • Decision 058/2017 Jackie Baillie MSP and Scottish Ministers
    Ms Baillie asked for information relating to the Vale of Leven Community Maternity Unit. The Ministers failed to respond to both the request and the request for review within the FOI Act's timescales.


  • Decision 060/2017 Mr T and City of Edinburgh Council
    The Council was asked for information in a whistleblowing report, together with a rebuttal of that report. The request was the same as one the requester had previously made, which the Council had previously refused. The requester now believed the circumstances had changed, and that the information should be disclosed.

    The Council withheld all the information requested under various FOI exemptions. We found that the Council had correctly withheld the information, and so did not require it to take any action.


  • Decision 061/2017 William Chisholm and Scottish Borders Council
    Mr Chisholm asked for reports laid before committee meetings which referred to a waste treatment contract. The Council disclosed six reports, but redacted (blacked-out) information which, in its view, would harm the confidentiality of commercial or industrial information. We did not agree and ordered disclosure.

Resolved cases:

We also resolved five cases in April without the need for a formal decision after the requesters chose to withdraw their appeals:


  •  In a highly sensitive case involving a request for information about the death of a family member, we explained that the effect of disclosing information under FOI would be to put the information into the public domain. The requester hadn't been aware of this and agreed that it wouldn't be appropriate.


  •  A company was happy to withdraw its application when the authority disclosed all of the information it held after we got involved.


  • Following a detailed investigation, we told a requester that we agreed with the authority's conclusion that the information was either not held (section 17), or was otherwise accessible to the requester (section 25).


  • After an appeal had been made to us, the authority offered to meet with the requester to discuss his request. After this meeting, the requester withdrew the appeal.


  • In one case, the authority had misinterpreted the request, which led to it applying exemptions which weren't relevant. After we got involved, the authority realised it should have treated the request as a subject access request under the Data Protection Act. It subsequently disclosed the information to the requester.


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