The call for views by the Public Audit and Post-Legislative Scrutiny Committee of the Scottish Parliament (“the Committee”) in respect of its post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (“FOISA”) ended on 21 June 2019 (having been extended a couple of times). One of the issues that came up on a number of occasions in the Committee’s discussions and evidence sessions prior to formally deciding to undertake post-legislative scrutiny of FOISA was the issue of vexatious requests. This issue has come up again in a number of responses to the call for views provided by Scottish public authorities (but certainly not all those Scottish public authorities that submitted responses).
It does seem as though Scottish public authorities, generally, are fairly poor at utilising section 14 of FOISA, which provides that a Scottish public authority does not need to comply with a request for information where it is vexatious. The Scottish Information Commissioner has also expressed the view that authorities are not utilising the available provisions within FOISA to deal with vexatious requests, such as at an evidence session before the Committee on 10 January 2019 [pdf].
The response of by Glasgow City Council [pdf] provides an example of a single requester who has made around 100 FOI requests on a related topic. It strikes me that requests from this particular requester on this particular topic could very well fall within the ambit of section 14 (although, I make that comment with only that information which is available from Glasgow City Council in its response). While the law requires the request to be vexatious, rather than the requester themselves, it is permissible to look at the requester’s conduct towards, previous correspondence with and previous requests to the authority in determining whether a particular request that has come in is, in fact, vexatious. This is something that Scottish public authorities seem to struggle with and often seem look at a particular request in isolation and not necessarily consider the wider background and context.
The leading case on section 14 of FOISA, Beggs v Scottish Information Commissioner, was only decided at the end of 2018 and therefore prior to that there was no authoritative guidance on the application of section 14 of FOISA. However, the Scottish Information Commissioner and Scottish public authorities have looked to Dransfield v Information Commissioner to help with the application of section 14 of FOISA. In Beggs the Inner House of the Court of Session essentially approved of the decision of the Court of Appeal in Dransfield. The decision in Beggs is, subject to any appeal to the UK Supreme Court, binding authority on the operation of section 14 of FOISA. Scottish public authorities can therefore look to both the Judgment of the Court of Appeal in Dransfield and the opinion of Lord Brodie in Beggs for guidance on section 14 of FOISA and how to apply it in appropriate cases.
The Court of Appeal and the Inner House of the Court of Session have both stressed that the right of access to information is a constitutional one and so the bar for engaging section 14 is a high one. However, it is clear that the bar is not so high so as to be impossible to meet in practice.
Section 14 of FOISA allows Scottish public authorities to consider matters that would not normally be relevant to FOI requests, such as the identity of the requester and their motives. Scottish public authorities (and indeed, public authorities working under the Freedom of Information Act 2000) should remember that they can look at a requester’s motives; for example, a malicious motive can be an indicator that a request is vexatious (but is not necessarily evidence that the request is, in fact, vexatious): Beggs at paragraph 33. Equally, the absence of a malicious motivation is not necessarily evidence that the request is not vexatious.
A person’s previous dealings with an authority can be relevant as can their other FOI requests: if a person is showing signs of obsessive behaviour, then that could be an indicator that the request is vexatious. The authority needs to look at the request objectively, in the surrounding circumstances, and come to a judgement as to whether the request is vexatious. However, it will need to remember to have evidence to support its conclusion in case the requester makes an application to the Commissioner challenging the application of section 14 by the authority.
Perhaps there is concern within authorities about getting it wrong and having a section 14 refusal overturned by the Commissioner; however, we can only learn from doing and from our mistakes. There are 96 decision notices on the Scottish Information Commissioner’s website relating to section 14(1) of FOISA (the specific part of section 14 that deals with vexatious requests). This number does seem to be rather small given that wide opinion coming from Scottish public authorities over many years that vexatious requests are a particular problem. Over 50 of those decision notices find entirely in favour of the authority and a good number are classified as partially upheld (many of which appear to have included technical defaults by the authority). It is clear that where a Scottish public authority appropriately deploys section 14 in respect of vexatious requests, the Commissioner will uphold that decision.
It certainly does seem to be the case that Scottish public authorities are reticent to utilise section 14 of FOISA. Perhaps, it is because they do not fully understand the scope of section 14 or are unsure about its precise application – it can potentially be used in a wide variety of circumstances. Scottish public authorities could certainly be using section 14 much more frequently than what they are at present and they should seek to become much more confident in using section 14. Indeed, a majority of the examples that I have seen emanate from Scottish public authorities, which they put forward as examples of problems that they are facing which cannot be dealt with by the application of section 14; most probably could, in fact, have been dealt with by the application of section 14. The same level of reluctance is not obviously present in respect of those authorities subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
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