Public authorities and FOI requests
This case deals with Freedom of Information requests and reasons for authorities to reject such requests.
Dransfield v Information Commissioner and Devon County Council
Craven v Information Commissioner and Department for Energy & Climate Change
This case deals with Freedom of Information (FoI) requests and reasons for authorities to reject such requests.
Dransfield and Craven separately issued FoI requests under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to public authorities. For both individuals, the request was rejected by the public authority and the decisions to reject were upheld by the Information Commissioner and the Upper Tribunal.
In relation to Dransfield, it was held that his request was vexatious. The tribunal stated that, although the request was polite and not vexatious in itself, it was nevertheless found vexatious because Dransfield had a history of making similar requests which aggregated to an obsessive and unreasonable campaign lacking any serious purpose.
Craven made three separate but coinciding FoI requests about power cables running over her land. The authority rejected the two last requests as it found them to be vexatious. The Information Commissioner held that the requests should have been issued under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 and, following the consideration of the requests under this statute, added that the requests were unreasonable. The Upper Tribunal upheld the Information Commissioner’s decision as it stated that there was no material difference between vexatiousness and manifest unreasonableness. Moreover, the Upper Tribunal stated that the cost of satisfying “an extremely burdensome request” could be a valid reason to qualify such request as unreasonable under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004.
In the Court of Appeal, the issues considered were:
- Whether a request not vexatious in itself could nonetheless be held vexatious due to the history between the authority and the requester;
- Whether the notions of “vexatiousness” in the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and “unreasonableness” in the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 are the same;
- Whether the Information Commissioner could raise an objection under a regulation of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 when the authority has not done so;
- Whether the meaning of vexatious was limited under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and;
- Whether the cost of compliance could be taken into account by the authority when considering requests under both the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004.
In regards to the first issue, the Court of Appeal held that the authority had to consider all the relevant circumstances when deciding whether to accept or decline a request in order to reach a balanced conclusion. This included any relevant history between the authority and the requester.
Concerning the second issue, the court held that “vexatious” within the Freedom of Information Act 2000 was objectively defined as a request that lacks of reasonable basis for establishing that the request is for the benefit of the public or of the requester. Under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, the concept of “unreasonableness” is to be objectively interpreted and the authority should be satisfied that the request is for the public’s benefit. Accordingly, the difference between the two notions is minimal.
Furthermore, the Court of Appeal held that the tribunal had not erred in relying on the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 where the authority had not done so.
In addition, the court stated that the Freedom of Information Act 2000 did not restrict the meaning of vexatious, especially in section 14(2) of the statute. This section relates to a different purpose and to a different power.
Lastly, it was found that the cost of compliance could be taken into account by the authority when considering whether a request is vexatious or unreasonable. However, this has to be balanced against the benefits of public disclosure.
Accordingly, the appeals for Dransfield and Craven were dismissed.