Decisions Round-up: 6 to 10 July 2015

This week we have a reminder for authorities of the serious impact that applying the cost limit has for requesters, and the need to be fully prepared with a reasonable estimate of costs before you apply it.

For requesters, there are two points to keep in mind, both of which came about where a requester chose to keep requests unspecific so that they could ask follow up questions. (1) When requesting a breakdown of figures, it helps to tell the authority what level of detail you need; and (2) we can only investigate your concerns if you've first raised them with the authority, so raise everything you are unhappy with when asking for a review.

Key messages:

  • Be fully prepared before applying the cost limit
    Under the FOI Act authorities can refuse requests if . The effect of this is to deny the requester their right to information, so the provision must be used carefully. Authorities applying the cost limit must make a reasonable estimate of the cost of compliance. That means knowing what information you hold and what work would be needed to respond to the request. In Decision 100/2015, we found the authority couldn't refuse the request on cost grounds.
  • Requesters: tell the authority what level of detail you need in a breakdown
    If you're looking for a breakdown of costs or other figures, and you can tell the authority what level of detail you're looking for, it's usually helpful to do so. This is something the requester could have done in the case which led to Decision 101/2015.
  • We can only investigate the concerns raised at review
    In any appeal to the Commissioner, the requester is asking us to consider how the public authority responded to their request for information. In doing this, we can only look at concerns they raised with the authority when asking for a review. In Decision 101/2015, the requester raised further issues with the authority after applying to us: we couldn't look at these.

Decisions issued:

  • Decision 100/2015 Alexander Codona and Glasgow City Council
    Mr Codona asked about the Council's implementation of parts of the Local Government Finance Act 1992. The Council informed Mr Codona that it was not obliged to comply with his request as the cost of doing so would be more than £600.
    We were not persuaded that the Council was entitled to refuse the request on cost grounds. We required the Council to give a different response to Mr Codona.
  • Decision 101/2015 National Alliance Against Tolls and Transport Scotland (NAAT)
    NAAT asked Transport Scotland for a breakdown of the latest estimated cost of the Forth Replacement Crossing.
    NAAT was not satisfied with the breakdown provided. We found that Transport Scotland failed to provide all the information requested. By the end of our investigation, Transport Scotland had provided the information in full.

Cases resolved informally:

In some cases, where it is appropriate, we will work to resolve cases without the need for a formal decision. We resolved seven cases this way in June. Here are the main reasons these cases were resolved:

  • The authority provided information during the investigation
    This happened in one case. The requester was satisfied that the information answered their request and felt able to withdraw their appeal.
  • There was very little for us to decide
    We found that the information had actually been disclosed to the requester before they appealed to us. All that was left to consider was a relatively small technical point in the legislation, so the requester decided to withdraw their appeal.
  • The requester abandoned their appeal
    In one case, we asked the requester for information we needed to progress the investigation. We didn't receive a response and, after further correspondence, treated the appeal as abandoned.
  • The authority misinterpreted the request
    On investigation, we discovered that the public authority had interpreted the request unduly broadly, and had withheld information the requester hadn't actually asked for. Once this became clear, the requester withdrew. Our concerns about the handling of the request were brought to the authority's attention.
  • An explanation was provided during the investigation
    In three cases, the requester withdrew after receiving a further explanation of the authority's position, and/or the relevant legal point, during our investigation. These explanations related to:

    i. by the authority
    ii. Laws preventing the disclosure of the information
    iii. The FOI Act's "vexatious" provision

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