Decisions Round-up: 28 January to 1 February 2013

We have published four decisions this week.


Key messages

  • Interpret requests reasonably

Interpret each request in light of what the applicant has said they want, taking care not to misconstrue or alter this, when you are thinking about how to respond.  If the request is unclear, seek clarification rather than make assumptions.  In Decision 008/2013, Ministers added their own time restrictions to a request, which led to an appeal to us and a delay in the applicant receiving information they were entitled to.

  • Tailor searches to address what the applicant wants

Think about what parameters you should use to construct searches in a way which will locate information as efficiently as possible.  Even where the applicant has not specified a topic or timeline, there may be other factors which help you search within the cost limit ? in the case of Decision 008/2013, the unusual name of Dr Qvortrup.

  • FOISA gives a right to information, not documents

It's neither unusual, nor unreasonable, for a requester to describe information by referring to the document in which it is likely to be found.  All you need to do is describe it sufficiently well for the authority to locate and retrieve it.  While, however, it will be easier in most cases for an authority to provide you copies of documents, it is entitled to disclose information in another form (such as an extract).

  • Be clear about which exemptions or exceptions you are relying on

It is just as important to ensure that you do not cite exception or exemptions which were not actually applied to the information requested, as it is to ensure that you correctly cite and explain those that you do rely on.

  • Check out previous decisions

While every appeal to us is determined on the circumstances of that particular case, it's helpful to look at previous decisions which are similar, to get some insight into the arguments which have been successful or otherwise.  In Decision 010/2013, the Commissioner's arguments in deciding to uphold the police's position were in line with previous similar decisions.

Summary of decisions

Mr Gilligan made two requests asking Ministers for information contained in correspondence with Dr Matt Qvortrup, an academic expert on referendums.  Ministers provided some information and found one of the requests to be invalid (it sought records of contact between Ministers and Mr Qvortrup, without reference to the topic of the records).  When this case was appealed, the Commissioner found that Ministers interpreted one request too narrowly, by applying a timescale which did not appear in the request.  During investigation, Ministers withdrew their claims that one of the requests was invalid, but argued that searching for the information would cost over ?600 ? but the Commissioner found that Dr Qvortrup's unusual name and narrow academic field meant that it was straightforward to tailor search parameters to locate the information.

In October 2011, Mr Zayachivsky asked the Council for information relating to statutory notices issued to a particular address.  The Council didn't respond initially, but when asked to review, it claimed that it did not hold much of what was being requested.  However, when the case was appealed to us relevant information came to light on two occasions and was released to Mr Zayachivsky.  We also found the Council had advised the requester that it had exempted and redacted personal information before release ? but in fact there was no such redaction, and the Council did not explain why it had cited this exemption but not applied it.  This mistake caused a further unnecessary delay in a case which had already been subject to long delays by the Council.

Ms Stephen asked for statistics relating to speeding offences detected by a fixed traffic camera at a junction on the A90.  The Police refused, on the grounds that release would substantially prejudice their ability to prevent and/or detect crime, and that the public interest lay in ensuring the safety of the junction where the camera was placed.  The Commissioner upheld the Police's position.

Mrs Wands asked Fife Council for a copy of a letter she understood the Council had sent to Lomond Homes (she assumed there had been such a letter based on information contained in an appeal statement written by Lomond Homes).  When the Council advised it did not hold the information, Mrs Wands asked for a review and then appealed to us.  During the investigation, the Council demonstrated it had carried out adequate searches, and advised it had no information relating to request for a time extension.  The Commissioner accepted the Council's position.

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