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Information Commissioner issues new guidance on vexatious requests

The Information Commissioner’s Office has published new guidance for public authorities on dealing with ‘vexatious’ requests.

The guidance, which can be downloaded here, covers a range of issues, including:

  • The meaning of vexatious;
  • Identifying potentially vexatious requests;
  • Determining whether the request is likely to cause a disproportionate or unjustified level of disruption, irritation or distress;
  • Burdensome requests;
  • Round robins;
  • Random requests and ‘fishing’ expeditions;
  • Campaigns;
  • Recommended actions before making a final decision;
  • Alternative approaches, including allowing the requester an opportunity to change their behaviour;
  • Refusing a request;
  • What the ICO will expect from an authority.

Publication of the guidance comes a few weeks after a key Upper Tribunal ruling.

The ICO has also today (15 May) issued new guidance on repeated requests and on ‘manifestly unreasonable exceptions’ under the Environmental Information Regulations.

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Writing on the ICO’s blog, Graham Smith, Deputy Commissioner and Director of Freedom of Information, said the aim of the guidance was to bring greater clarity to one of the three circumstances under which an entire request can be rejected (alongside the cost limit rules and repeated requests).

He wrote: “It is an area made more complicated by the word ‘vexatious’ itself. It’s a word rarely used in day-to-day conversation, and what’s more, the Upper Tribunal earlier this year took the view that ordinary dictionary definition of the word was of limited use in the context of FOI requests (prompting their alternative suggestion).”

Smith said that much of the ICO’s guidance focused on what was meant by the term, and more specifically, what a public authority should do to satisfy itself that a request is vexatious.

“The short answer to that is that the public authority should be asking itself whether the request is likely to cause a disproportionate or unjustified level of disruption, irritation or distress,” he said.

“The longer answer is, of course, to read the guidance, though the words of the Upper Tribunal on this still ring true: there is no magic formula.”

The ICO’s Deputy Director continued: “An area of the guidance sure to attract a lot of attention is our list of typical key features of a vexatious request. It’s by no means a definitive or limiting list, but it does give a feel for the type of cases we’d feel could fall under the term.”

Smith added that the watchdog had taken on board some of the concerns expressed during the Justice Committee’s post-legislative scrutiny of FOIA.

“There’s more focus on the burden and impact that handling such requests has on the public authority,” he said.

Smith said the ICO had also updated its ‘for the public’ webpages to reflect what it was telling public authorities. This includes a new list of ‘dos and don’ts’ designed to help requesters get the best result from making a legitimate request.

 

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