Freedom of Information Act

The
arrival of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) at the start of this
year was heralded by many as a force for potentially great change in
the accessibility of information held by the numerous and varied public
bodies that are subject to it. Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor,
spoke of a change in the relationship between the citizen and the
state, between politician and journalist and, even, better government.
Admirable ideals, but recent developments suggest that not every public
body shares the Lord Chancellor\’s enthusiasm for openness.

One
example provides ammunition for the cynics. It reveals the opportunity
for procrastination that the FOIA provides by allowing public bodies to
extend the 20-day period for a response that they must initially stick
to. As things stand, if a public body can argue that there is a \”public
interest\” element involved in considering whether to release
information, then it can give itself a further 20 days to mull over the
pros and cons of releasing the information.

Recently, the editor
of the Newark Advertiser has voiced his concerns that use of this extra
period of time is being employed simply as a delaying tactic. News, of
course, is a perishable commodity – if over a month passes between a
request for information and this information being provided, it may
have passed well beyond its \”use by\” date.

What can be done?
Careful crafting of any request made under the FOIA is a valuable tool.
Although it will by no means remove the opportunity for a recalcitrant
public body to drag its feet, it can increase the likelihood of a
request being dealt with more quickly.

For example, instead of
requesting information extending perhaps years into the past and
covering a wide variety of issues, a more tailored request limited, if
possible, to a specific time period or issue is likely to yield a more
positive response.

Similarly, care should be taken to avoid
providing an opportunity for a public body to deploy an argument that a
person\’s privacy may be breached by disclosure of information which is
the subject of a request – this can be done, for example, requesting
figures relevant to a particular issue rather than relevant to an
individual.

However, whoever is looking to get information from a
public body needs to be persistent. There is a mechanism for appealing
decisions made by public bodies that are felt to be mistaken. Richard
Thomas, the information commissioner, is tasked with the job of
determining any appeal made to him by someone who is not satisfied with
a decision not to release requested information. Far from a simple
task, and unfortunately a time-consuming one, but one which relies on
those trying to use the FOIA to their advantage, making full use of its
provisions.

Ultimately, the chance to make real the ideals put
forward by the Lord Chancellor rests as much with them as it does the
public bodies caught in the FOIA\’s wide net.

Phil Gorski is assistant solicitor at Wiggin LLP

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