Decisions Round-up: 18 to 22 February 2013

We have published four decisions this week.


Key messages

  • Vexatiousness may result from a range of factors, not just "significant burden"

When considering whether a request is vexatious, you can look, not only at the burden it places on your resources, but at the context of the request and the effect it has on your authority.  For example, the Commissioner agrees that prolonged correspondence on a single subject, where it appears unlikely that responding will inform or alter the applicant's situation, may be a relevant factor.  Similarly, where a request has the effect of harassing an authority, it may be reasonable to deem it vexatious (even if the request is not otherwise burdensome).  The Commissioner will be publishing new guidance on vexatious requests shortly.

  • Before asking for another person's personal data, check whether you really need it

Data protection laws protect personal information from being released unless certain conditions are met.  If you want access to another person's personal data through FOISA, these conditions still apply.  One of the conditions which permit you to access another's personal data is where you have a legitimate interest in the information - BUT it must also be necessary to pursue those interests.  When asking for this kind of information, ask yourself if you really need it for the aims you are pursuing.  If not, requesting it may simply serve to delay you.

  • Information may not be in the document you expect it to be in

It is perfectly reasonable to ask for information by referring to a specific document, but it may be that the information you want is contained in a different document.  The authority has a duty to assist you, so they should advise you if this is the case.  You can of course continue to ask for a specific document having been given alternatives, but you might prevent yourself from receiving information which would be of use to you.

  • Conduct adequate searches

This has been a recurring theme since we started issuing the Decisions Round-up.  Conducting adequate searches before concluding that you do not hold information may ultimately save you time.  If the case is appealed to us, we will ask you for evidence of the searches you have undertaken.  You may find at that stage that further searches would have yielded the information which was asked for, but you have now had to allocate further resources to dealing with an appeal.

  • Good records management is central to good FOI practice

On a similar theme, this week's Round-up includes an excellent example demonstrating how sound records management policies properly followed can help an authority determine whether information is held, to the satisfaction of the Commissioner.

Summary of decisions

  • Decision 013/2013 - Clyde Marine Services Ltd and Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT)

In a 26-point request, the applicant sought information relating to a person it understood to be employed on the Gourock-Kilcreggan Ferry Service.  The applicant lost the contract to run this service in 2011 and has made a large number of FOI requests concerning the contract award since then.  SPT claimed the request was vexatious, being part of a prolonged correspondence on a single issue which was diverting a disproportionate amount of resource away from other activities.  The Commissioner agreed that the request had the effect (if unintended) of harassing the SPT and responding would simply prolong correspondence on matters which appeared to have already been considered fully.

Mr W asked the SPS for a range of information relating its Relationship programme, including a specific Circular.  The SPS told Mr W it did not the hold the Circular as it had been subsumed into a more recent policy document, but Mr W made it clear he wanted the original Circular.  In most cases, it would have been appropriate for the SPS to provide the more recent document, but, given that Mr W was clear that it was the original Circular he wanted, we upheld the decision of the SPS.

Ms D asked the Police whether a named person was still employed by them as a police officer.  The Police refused, on the grounds it was personal information, and it would be unlawful to release it.  Ms D explained that she intended to pursue a civil case against that person, but the Police refused again, claiming that Ms D did not need this information in order to pursue her case.  When it was appealed, we agreed that, while Ms D had a legitimate interest in the information, this interest could be pursued just as effectively without it.

Mrs Scott asked for information relating to the disappearance and death of a named patient at a certain hospital in 1987.  The Board advised her that it did not hold any recorded information that would address her request.  When this case was appealed to us, the Board explained that all records of this nature, going back to 1964, had been destroyed after a change in policy in 2008.  Copies of its relevant policies and procedures supported the Board's position and the Commissioner accepted that the Board did not hold the information.

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