Trade magazine wins 'David and Goliath' FoI battle to expose rogue landlords

An environmental journalist has achieved a  victory over the Information Commissioner in an attempt to obtain information about bad landlords under the Freedom of Information Act.

A tribunal has ordered the Ministry of Justice to hand over the information on convicted landlords to Tom Wall, digital editor of the Environmental Health News, after they rejected the IC’s decision that the information should be kept secret.

Wall wanted details of landlords convicted of environmental health offences under the Housing Act 2004 so that local authorities could be warned about using them in the future.

The landlords had been convicted for failing to meet government standards of accommodation – such as warmth and provision of basic facilities.

It took Wall more than a year to win his case after his Freedom of Information request was rejected by the MoJ and then the ICO.

The ICO said the information was "sensitive personal data" and rejected Wall’s public interest argument.

But last week, the First-Tier (Information Rights) Tribunal unanimously ruled in Wall’s favour

They said: "The Tribunal found the arguments of Mr Wall with respect to substantive public interest clear, cogent and persuasive. The arguments of the ICO were helpful but ultimately unconvincing.

"Unfit housing is a matter of major public concern and has a significant impact on the health of tenants."

Wall said afterwards:  "I'm really pleased and if I'm honest a little surprised. This was a real David and Goliath style contest between a small professional publication and a government watchdog and department with considerable legal expertise and resources.

"Their lawyers maintained all along that I didn't have a chance and the law was clearly against disclosure. In fact the opposite was true and the data I requested well over a year ago will soon have to be released to the public. 

"I'm glad I persevered against the odds because this data will make it harder for rogue landlords to evade local authorities. It will also help the growing army of private renters to avoid landlords with a history of renting out dangerous and unhealthy homes."

Wall admitted that the 12-month fight for the information was time-consuming, frustrating and draining.

He said: "It’s almost as if it was set up to put off all but the most determined journalists. I'm far from an expert in freedom of information and data protection laws. I've had to research all the different of aspect of the case myself and respond to the manifold reasons offered up various government officials and solicitors for not releasing the names of criminal landlords. But despite this it has been worth the trouble."

Environmental Health News is the official magazine for the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health

Cleland Thom is author of Election legal guide for journalists

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