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Freedom of information – the small print

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The Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) gives individuals a general right to receive a copy of personal information held about them by public authorities.

The FOIA has two main functions:

  1. Public authorities are obliged to publish certain information about their activities and
  2. Members of the public are entitled to request information from public authorities

The right to request information being held on them does not require the individual to give a reason for requesting the information which must be provided within a reasonable time unless there is a good reason for refusing to disclose the information which is recognised by the Act.

The General Data Protection Regulation defines personal information as “any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person (‘data subject’); an identifiable natural person is one who can be identified, directly or indirectly in particular by reference to an identifier such as a name, an identification number, location data, an online identifier or to one or more factors specific to the physical, physiological, genetic, mental, economic, cultural or social identity of that natural person.” Anonymised and third party information is not personal data and will therefore not be disclosed without the individuals consent.

Who can I request information from?

The Act applies to public authorities. Section 3 of FOIA provides:

(1) In this Act “public authority” means—
(a) subject to section 4(4), anybody which, any other person who, or the holder of any office which—
(i) is listed in Schedule 1, or
(ii) is designated by order under section 5, or
(b) a publicly-owned company as defined by section 6.

Schedule 1 sets out the bodies or holders of office that are public authorities under FOIA in the following broad categories:

  • Government departments, legislative bodies, and the armed forces
  • Local government
  • National Health Service
  • Maintained schools and further and higher education institutions
  • Police
  • Other public bodies (this includes a list of individually named non-departmental public bodies)

Section 6 furthers the list and says

6 (1) A company is a “publicly-owned company” for the purposes of section 3(1)(b) if—
(a) it is wholly owned by the Crown,
(b) it is wholly owned by the wider public sector, or
(c) it is wholly owned by the Crown and the wider public sector.

How to make a request?

Requests under FOIA are made directly to the public authority and can be done by:

  • Letter
  • Email
  • Social media
  • Fax
  • Online form (depending on the public authority, the form will be on the website.

Public authorities will generally have the eligible request methods on their website. After a request is made the public authority will generally have 28 days to provide the requested information.

What information am I entitled to?

A freedom of information request can request any personal information a public authority may hold. The right applies to recorded information which includes information held on computers, in emails and in printed or handwritten documents as well as images, video and audio recordings.

Is there any information that I cannot access?

A public authority can refuse a freedom of information request if:

  • It would cost too much or take too much staff time to deal with the request.
  • The request is vexatious.
  • The request repeats a previous request from the same person.

And under FOIA there are a number of exemptions to documents and classes of documents that need to be disclosed;

s.21- information accessible to applicant by other means
s.22- information intended for future publication
s.23- Information supplied by, or relating to, bodies dealing with security matters
s.24- National security
s.25- Certificates under ss. 23 and 24: supplementary provisions
s.26- Defence
s.27- international relations
s.28- Relations within the United Kingdom
s.29- the economy
s.30- Investigations and proceedings conducted by public authorities
s.31- Law enforcement
s.32- court records
s.33- Audit functions
s.34- Parliamentary privilege
s.35- Formulation of government policy
s.36- Prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs
s.37- Communications with Her Majesty, etc. and honours
s.38- Health and safety
s.39- Environmental information
s.40- personal information
s.41- Information provided in confidence
s.42- Legal professional privilege
s.43- Commercial interests
s.44- Prohibitions on disclosure

What do I do if my request is denied?

If your request is refused, the pubic authority will inform you if they have an internal appeal process to which you can appeal. If you appeal and they still refuse the application or they do not have an internal process, the next stage is to make a complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). The ICO will allocate a case worker to look into the complaint and decide the outcome, and each side will be notified of the action to be taken.   If the ICO decision is wholly unreasonable it can be Judicially Reviewed at the High Court.

In this complex sector, Saunders Law acts for clients both in making the request and following it up if the request is refused. If you want your personal information from a public authority, our team would be happy to assist. Please get in contact by calling 0207 632 4300 and ask to speak to one of the following members of our team James SaundersSteve Garratt or Amber Richardson.

 

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