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It’s illegal under the UK’s Freedom of Information law to deliberately delete, alter or destroy records once a request for information has been made. Section 77 of the FOI Act is the only criminal offence that can be committed by an individual under the law.

But, S77 is a pretty obscure part of the FOI Act. So obscure, in fact, that nobody has ever been prosecuted for deleting information on purpose. And that is set to stay the case for a while yet.

The FOI regulator, the Information Commissioner, has failed in its attempts to prosecute a Thanet councillor who was accused of destroying information about dog poo. Suzanne Brimm, who represents the Birchington South area, was found not guilty of foul play by Canterbury Magistrates Court.

Kent Online reports the court found she hadn’t blocked or concealed data after FOI requests were made during July and September 2017. She was given an absolute discharge but pleaded guilty to not being registered with the Information Commissioner’s Office as a data controller.

“Justice has been served,” Brimm told the Isle of Thanet News and an ICO spokesperson said it had noted the result of the case and added it would attempt to take enforcement action when it believes it is correct to do so.

If Brimm had been found guilty, the maximum penalty for the FOI offence could be a fine anywhere up to £5,000. The councillor first faced the charges from the ICO in March 2018, when a summons was issued outlining the case against the independent councillor.

Section 77 of the FOI Act says: “any person to whom this subsection applies is guilty of an offence if he alters, defaces, blocks, erases, destroys or conceals any record held by the public authority, with the intention of preventing the disclosure by that authority of all, or any part, of the information to the communication of which the applicant would have been entitled.”

I am a journalist and author. I am a journalist at the UK edition of WIRED magazine. In 2015, my first book Freedom of Information: A Practical Guide for UK Journalists, was published. My second book Reed Hastings: Building Netflix, was published in March 2020. I created FOI Directory in 2012 and have maintained it in my spare time ever since.