The UK’s Freedom of Information Act is very clear. Public authorities are required to respond to FOI requests no later than 20 working days after they were made. 

The law itself says “a public authority must comply with section 1(1) promptly and in any event not later than the twentieth working day following the date of receipt.”

The FOI regulator adds to this by saying: “Authorities should regard the 20 working day limit as a ‘long stop’, in other words the latest possible date on which they may issue a response.”

Things aren’t always this simple, though. There are a few circumstances where a public body can extend its FOI response time – allowing it to pull together more information or work out if it should provide people with the information that is has been asked for.

But there are times when requests go unanswered or are ignored without any explanation being provided. Here’s what you need to know about FOI reply times.

Why haven’t I received an FOI response? 

Some requests can take a long time to answer, there may have to be many exchanges between FOI officers and staff in departments where the information is stored, and they may have to consider a range of exemptions.

In some cases a public interest test will have to be considered. Many exemptions are subject to the public interest test and it gives the authority more time to respond, they should notify you if this is the case.

It’s important to remember the person answering your request is only doing their job. They’re probably overworked and doing the best they can – not every late response is an attempt to avoid providing information.

How to work out FOI request response time

The Information Commissioner’s Office makes it clear about when a request has been received by an authority and when the time starts for them to respond.

The 20 working day clock starts:

  • According to section 10(1) the time limit for compliance is the twentieth working day following the date of receipt.
  • Or, the day the authority receives further information it reasonably requires in order to identify and locate the information requested; section 1(3).
  • A request is received when it is delivered to the public authority, or when it is delivered to the inbox of a member of staff.
  • The date of receipt is not the date the request is passed to the appropriate person for processing. However, if an ‘out of office’ response is received and it includes where the email should be redirected to, the clock for the FOI request does not start automatically.

Before following any of the following steps it is important to double check date the request was sent and when a response should be received.

What to do if a response isn’t received within 20 working days?

There are ultimately three options if a response isn’t replied to within the time limits, these are:

Email – send a query to the authority asking why a response hasn’t been received within the statutory time limit. Make sure you use any reference numbers that are related to your request this will make locating the progress of it easier. Be patient and wait for a response.

Ring – if a response to the chasing email isn’t received (in a reasonable amount of time) then the next option is to call the department and enquire about the request.

Complain: The final measure is to complain to the Information Commissioner’s Office. The form to complain will download from here.

The Information Commissioner recommends contacting the authority before a complaint is made to the office:

“First, write to the organisation concerned and give it an opportunity to put things right. Many problems can be solved quickly without us getting involved. You can call our helpline on 0303 123 1113 for advice to help you to solve the problem.”

More in this guide: 

The following pages give more information about the FOI Act and the rights of a requester.

What is the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act 2000?

Who is covered by the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act – are private companies?

How to make an FOI request

How to complain about an FOI request – including to the ICO

The Freedom of Information (FOI) Act exemptions explained

Updated January 23, 2021: This article was originally published on January 6, 2013 and has since been updated with new information

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.