The Freedom of Information Act was designed to give people the right to know. It allows anyone the ability to ask questions of public authorities in the UK and receive answers. (Albeit they may not be the answers requesters want).
It has led to vast quantities of information being made public that would previously not have seen the light of day. During this process, governments, councils and public authorities have generally became more transparent than they previously were before the FOI Act was enacted.
The Act is said to have been designed in favour of disclosure. However, many people who use it will have faced what they feel to be undue barriers to accessing information.
Public authorities can, at times, take advantage of people making FOI requests by not applying the law correctly. They can drag their feet over providing FOI request responses within the law’s 20 working day time limits or not correctly apply exemptions and fail to conduct thorough public interest tests when they are using qualified exemptions.
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. There’s a myriad of reasons for why a request may or may not be answered to the strictest letter of the law – often, it’s likely to be more cock-up than conspiracy.
However, the Act’s text gives a fair amount of rights to the requester. These have been boosted during the Act’s implementation by Decision Notices from the FOI regulator, the Information Commissioner’s Office, and case law from Information Tribunals.
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).
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More in this guide:
The following pages give more information about the FOI Act and the rights of a requester.
Updated May 18, 2020: This article was originally published on February 8, 2015 and has since been updated with new information