Decisions Round-up: 23 to 27 November 2015

It's almost always helpful for requesters to know as much as possible about withheld information. Even knowing how much information has been withheld, or where it sat within a document, can help the requester better understand an issue or situation.

Although not a requirement of FOI law, this week's round-up explains that it's good practice to let requesters see where any redactions have been made.


Key messages:


  • Make sure your submissions to the Commissioner are clear
    It's always going to help your case with the Commissioner if you tie your arguments in with the particular statutory tests that have been applied. In doing this, it's helpful to follow the guidance in our briefings. We commented on this issue in Decision 181/2015.


  • Is the requester asking for personal data?
    Where a request is for information "relating to" a particular living individual, any information caught by the request will (by definition) be that individual's personal data. This is likely to have a bearing on which exemptions are relevant, as we found in Decision 182/2015.


  • Try to ensure the requester can see where you've redacted information
    With electronic documents it can often be tempting just to remove blocks of text which aren't covered by the request, or which you're withholding under an exemption. However, it can help the requester to understand your approach if they can see where you've redacted information and how much information is affected. There's no specific provision in the FOI Act covering this, but the Commissioner does consider it good practice to let requesters see where redactions have been made. The point is discussed in Decision 183/2015.


  • We're not always barred from investigating how the Crown Office responded to a request
    The FOI Act makes it clear that we can't investigate the way the Crown Office responds to a request if the information that's been asked for is about criminal prosecutions or the investigation of deaths. However, we can investigate how the Crown Office responds to information held for other purposes. Decision 184/2015 is one of those cases.


  • Think carefully about what the requester is looking for
    As we've said before, you should always be sure you understand what the requester is looking for before you respond to their request. If you're not sure, you should seek clarification. Just because a request is framed broadly, it doesn't necessarily follow that a general response will do, particularly where you hold more specific information that's covered by the request. These were among the issues we looked at in Decision 184/2015.


  • Always remember to respond on time
    And finally, a learning point that will be very familiar to regular readers. The timescales for responding under the FOI Act are mandatory, and they can't be extended, under any circumstances. So authorities must comply with them. Decision 180/2015 provides another example of a public authority failing to do this.

Decisions issued:


  • Decision 180/2015 Mr Alastair Tibbitt and Shetland Islands Council
    Mr Tibbitt asked the Council for information about the Emerging and Residual Threat Local Profile for its area. We found that the Council failed to comply with Mr Tibbitt's request for review within the FOI timescales.


  • Decision 181/2015 Mr N and North Lanarkshire Council
    The Council was asked to confirm whether the owner of a dog had ever admitted that the dog had entered Mr N's garden. The Council refused to comply with the request on the grounds that it was vexatious. Although we didn't accept all the Council's arguments, we did agree that the request was vexatious.


  • Decision 182/2015 Mr Patrick Kelly and the Scottish Ministers
    The Ministers were asked for information relating to Professor Muftah Salem Eljamel, a former surgeon at Ninewells Hospital, Dundee. The Ministers provided some information, but withheld the remainder under a number of different exemptions. We found that all of the information the Ministers had withheld was personal data, and that disclosure of the personal data would breach the Data Protection Act (meaning that the Ministers were entitled to withhold it under the FOI Act).


  • Decision 183/2015 Mr Stephen Calder and Aberdeenshire Council
    Mr Calder asked the Council for information relating to the Peterhead Futures Group and Peterhead Town Team Group. The Council responded following a request for review. It issued some information to Mr Calder, but withheld other information. We accepted that the Council had responded to Mr Calder's request in accordance with the FOI Act, but commented on the Council's practice of redacting information.


  • Decision 184/2015 Mr Kevin O'Donnell and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS)
    Mr O'Donnell asked COPFS for details of payments to Ricoh for specified services and for other details of the related procurement exercise. COPFS responded by providing information to Mr O'Donnell. Following his appeal Mr O'Donnell was given further information: we were then satisfied that this was all the relevant information COPFS held, but found that the additional information should have been given to Mr O'Donnell at an earlier stage.

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