The Freedom of Information Act is one that was designed to give people a right to know about the affairs of public authorities. The Act is said to be in favour of disclosure – although this is not always the case.
Authorities can, at times, take advantage of requesters by not applying the law correctly. This can sometimes be due to them not wanting to disclose information and it could be due to undertrained staff members, an abundance of work, or not keeping up-to-date with changes in the legislation.
The Act’s text gives a fair amount of rights to the requester but the Information Commissioner’s Office issuing Decision Notices and case law from Information Tribunals and above have increased these.
Here are some of the most important rights the Act affords to requesters:
- The requester’s identity should not be taken into account, it is applicant blind.
- The reason for wanting the information should also not be asked by the public authority, it is purpose blind.
- The authority has to answer promptly and in any case within 20 working days (Section 10).
- When refusing a request the authority has to say which exemption it is relying upon, and explain why the exemption applies (Section 17).
- The public authority must explain why, in all circumstances, the interest in keeping the information secret outweighs the public interest in disclosure, when it is relying on a qualified exemption (Section 17).
- A refusal can be challenged by making an internal review if the authority has a process set up – most do.
- It is free to complain to the regulator (Section 50).
- The requester can be provided with advice and assistance about their request, or even before a request is made, due to Section 16 of the Act.
- When redacting, blacking out parts of, a response the authority cannot include the time it takes to do this in its cost estimates (Fees Regulations, 2004, reg.4).
- The requester can ask for a certain type of file to be provided and the authority should comply, unless it is unreasonable to do so (Court case, under Section 11).
More in this guide:
The following pages give more information about the FOI Act and the rights of a requester.