Tag Archives: Vexatious Requests

Scottish Vexatiousness

Paragraph numbers in this blog post relate to the Court of Session’s decision in Beggs v Scottish Information Commissioner [2018] CSIH 80; unless the context requires, or it is expressly stated, otherwise.

If you’re regularly involved in the making of or responding to freedom of information requests then you are likely to be familiar with the decision of the English and Welsh Court of Appeal in Dransfield and Another v The Information Commissioner and another which deals with the meaning and application of “vexatious” within section 14 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (“FOIA”). In keeping with many of the provisions of FOIA, there has been considerable litigation on section 14 within the First-Tier Tribunal; however, the decision in Dransfield is the leading authority on the approach that public authorities, the UK Information Commissioner and the First-Tier and Upper Tribunals should take when applying or considering the exemption in section 14(1) of FOIA.

As with many aspects of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002, the equivalent provisions within FOISA (also section 14) have escaped any judicial consideration; that is, until today when the First Division,  Inner House of the Court of Session (Lord President Carloway and Lords Brodie and Drummond Young) advised its opinion in an appeal under section 56 of FOISA against a decision of the Scottish Information Commissioner which upheld the decision of the Scottish Prison Service that a request for information made to it was vexatious: Beggs v Scottish Information Commissioner [2018] CSIH 80.

As with most cases involving vexatious requests, there is a history to the matter; this is briefly set out in paragraphs 5-15 of the Court’s Opinion. I am therefore not going to set it out here. There were two grounds of appeal advanced on behalf of the Appellant before the Court and these are set out, in full, by the Court in paragraph 4 of its Opinion. The grounds can  be summarised as follows: (1) that the test set out by Arden LJ (as she then was) in Dransfield should apply and that it had been incorrectly applied by the Scottish Information Commissioner (“SIC”); and (2) that the SIC’s decision was irrational as it failed to take into account a number of factors. The court ultimately rejected both grounds of appeal and refused the Appeal.

The Court makes some “preliminary comment” about the English and Welsh Court of Appeal’s decision in Dransfield. It notes that the decision is “an English case concerning English legislation” (para 26). This is not a wholly accurate statement by the Court: Dransfield concerns section 14 of FOIA, which cannot properly be said to be English legislation. FOIA covers UK-wide public bodies (such as UK Government departments, the BBC, UCAS, the British Transport Police and other); it can be used by people living in Scotland. There is also no separate Norther Irish FOI law and FOIA applies to bodies such as departments of the Northern Irish Government and the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Furthermore, it is possible for appeals against the Upper Tribunal to be taken to the Court of Session and the UK Commissioner can, for example, under section 54, make certifications to the Court of Session.

It appears that what the Court meant by “English legislation” is that the decision in Dransfield was not binding upon the SIC as the SIC is concerned with the enforcement of FOISA – an Act of the Scottish Parliament – rather than FOIA – an Act of the UK Parliament. I may, of course, be entirely wrong and the Court of Session has fundamentally misunderstood FOIA and the distinction between FOIA and FOISA. However, this is not really a matter upon which anything of substance in Beggs can be said to turn. It appears that the Court has essentially adopted the reasoning of Arden LJ and supplemented it with some of its own.

Also by way of preliminary comment the Court notes that Arden LJ expressly declined to offer a definition of or test for “vexatious” or “vexatiousness” (para 26) and so it was incorrect to argue that Dransfield set out a “test” for vexatious requests. The court went on (also at para 26) to state that “[i]t would be remarkable if the word “vexatious” when found in section 14(1) of the English Act of 2000 meant something different from the same word when found in section 14(1) of the Scottish Act of 2002; the terms of the two subsections are essentially identical.”

However, the Court of Session found that there was much in the judgment of Arden LJ that they would agree with and quote paragraph 68 of the judgment of Arden LJ with approval. The Court of Session, perhaps importantly, appears to have approved of the view that Arden LJ took that the rights in FOIA were constitutional in nature (para 28). The court also held that when assessing whether a request is vexatious or not, it must be viewed objectively. In the decision under challenge, the SIC had concluded that when viewed objectively the information sought was of no value to the Appellant. The First Division held that had the SIC followed Dransfield (which she was not obliged to do so) then she would have correctly reached the same conclusion: that Mr Beggs’ request was vexatious (para 30).

In terms of the irrationality ground of appeal, this was dealt with more swiftly by the Court. Counsel for the Appellant had characterised the three matters which the Appellant argued had been overlooked by the Court, were material.

The first matter was the Appellant’s express disavowal of any direct and personal attack. The Appellant had expressly disavowed in his request that there was any such attack. However, the Solicitor Advocate for the SIC argued that the contents of a letter sent to one of the SIC’s officers revealed the Appellant’s purpose; the Appellant’s purpose was “not to obtain information as such” (para 33) rather it was with a view to pursuing complaints about their conduct.” (also at para 33).

The court held that “the presence of a malicious motive may point to a request being vexatious the absence of a malicious motive does not point to a request not being vexatious” (para 33). In essence, while the Court appears to have been sceptical of the Appellant’s express disavowal of personal attack it seems that even if it had not been sceptical, the disavowal may not have assisted the Appellant anyway. The Court again expressed the objective nature of assessing whether a request is vexatious and agreed with the SIC that a request may be harassing even if that is not what is intended by the requester.

The second consideration referred to the past conduct of the authority; these requests appear to have been the result of the Scottish Prison Service putting forward inaccurate information in earlier proceedings before the Court of Session. The Court approved of the view of Arden LJ in respect of vengeful motives – such a motive might itself be an indicator that a request is vexatious. The court’s position here is fairly broad, but it does not appear to close off legitimate use of FOISA to uncover evidence of wrongdoing within a Scottish public authority. However, it is fairly clear that if a requester is using

The third consideration related to the importance of the information requested; the court concluded that the information was objectively of no value and this was therefore not a material consideration.

Comment
This is the first time that the vexatious requests provision in FOISA has been considered by the Scottish courts and will now be the leading case in applying section 14(1) of FOISA. The decision essentially approves of the approach set out by the English and Welsh Court of Appeal in Dransfield. It is important to remember that a request must be considered objectively. There is no express test for vexatious requests either under FOIA or FOISA, but it will be important for Scottish public authorities to keep in mind the constitutional nature of the rights in FOISA. With this in mind, the threshold for applying the provision in section 14(1) of FOISA is a high one.

The Court of Session considers that, when Arden LJ used the phrase “no reasonable foundation for thinking that the information sought would be of value”, it appears that Arden LJ was trying to encapsulate an idea of “gross disproportion as between much trouble inevitably caused and little benefit possibly gained.” How much traction this comment of the Court of Session will have in terms of the application of section 14 of FOIA (given that the Court of Session’s judgments in FOISA cases are of only persuasive authority to the Tribunals and English and Welsh Courts) remains to be seen. Of course, should Beggs seek permission (and be granted permission) to appeal to the Supreme Court we may get a definitive view from(the now)  Lady Arden on whether the Court of Session has correctly interpreted what she meant when sitting in the English and Welsh Court of Appeal.

For the time being, whether or not the Court of Session was right in what it said, this is now (subject to any appeal) the law as it applies in Scotland vis-à-vis FOISA. When considering whether a requester has a reasonable foundation for thinking that the information sought would be of value, it is necessary to look (objectively) at what value there is in the information (a mere assertion by the Applicant that it is of value will not itself be sufficient) and balance that against the inevitable burden that answering the request will place on the authority: they are inversely proportional to one another.

From the perspective of requesters, it is likely to be of little assistance to include express statements in requests that the request is not a personal attack on the authority or a member of its staff and even if you have no intent to cause harassment your request might well have that effect. Your request will be considered objectively in light of its facts and circumstances (and comments made in later correspondence may well be seen as tending to show the opposite).

The decision in Beggs is not likely to have much, if any, impact upon the way in which the vexatious requests provisions in FOISA operate in practice. The Court has essentially approved of the approach to the identical provisions under FOIA. In the absence of any previous authority from the Scottish courts in respect of section 14, the SIC and Scottish public authorities have historically found Dransfield to be persuasive and used it as a basis for understanding what section 14 means.

In short, to decide whether a request is vexatious it is necessary to consider the request objectively on its own facts and circumstances. There is no formula or checklist that can be followed which will give you a definitive answer.

Alistair Sloan

If you would like advice or assistance in respect of a Freedom of Information matter or a data protection/privacy issue then contact Alistair Sloan on 0141 229 0880 or you can send him an E-mail.

Personal Data and FOI: to anonymise or not to anonymise

I recently wrote a blog post covering the release of third party personal data under freedom of information laws in both Scotland and the rest of the UK. Requests which seek the release of third party personal data, or where information within the scope of a FOI request constitutes the personal data of a third party, are the most common examples of where freedom of information and data protection overlap; however, they are not the only examples.

On Friday of last week, the Herald contained a piece covering calls which had been made to anonymise FOI requests which are sent to government advisers. These calls follow on from some high profile disagreements between the Scottish Government and journalists. The allegations levelled against the Scottish Government is that ministers and their advisers are having undue influence over what information is and is not released under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002; in particular where the request comes from a journalist. The Scottish Information Commissioner is currently carrying out an “intervention” which is looking at this matter alongside one which has a wider remit in relation to the Scottish Government’s handling of FOI requests. It is understood that the Commissioner’s Office will report its findings of these interventions in the next month or so.

These wider issues are not, however, the focus of this blog post. Rather, the focus of this blog post relates to the call to anonymise FOI requests in this way and whether this is a practice that public authorities ought to be following in any event.

The General Data Protection Regulation and the Data protection Act 2018 now govern how organisations, such as public authorities, process personal data. Reducing the data protection framework down to its most basic requirement, data controllers should not be processing the personal data of a data subject unless they have a lawful basis to do so.

When a public authority circulates a request for information, or a proposed response to a request for information, that is not stripped of the personal data of the requester then that would amount to the processing of personal data of which the requester is the data subject. What is the lawful basis of processing in Article 6 of the GDPR which enables the public authority to process the requester’s personal data in that way?  Clearly there is a need for the requester’s personal data to be processed in order to enable the response to be issued to the requester and there will no doubt be some central record which records who has made FOI requests, what the request was for and what the outcome of the request was – if only to enable the authority to respond to an internal review, appeal to the Commissioner or appeal to the tribunal/courts.

The Authority cannot possibly have the consent of the data subject to process their personal data by circulating it around the authority. Consent cannot be inferred in the way that would be necessary in order to rely upon consent. There’s no contract with the data subject which would require the processing of their personal data in this way.

Answering a FOI request is a legal obligation on behalf of the public authority, but is it necessary to provide the name of the requester to the department(s) who need to search for the information or to an official or adviser who is having in put into the response? Probably not, especially when set against the ‘applicant blind’ way in which FOI requests are supposed to be dealt with. Is it necessary in order to protect the vital interests of the data subject or of another natural person? I’d have thought it unlikely. Again, it’s unlikely to be necessary for the performance of a task carried out in the public interest or in the exercise of official authority vested in the controller. Finally, it’s unlikely that it would be necessary for the purposes of the legitimate interests pursued by the controller or by a third party.

In short, it’s unlikely that it is necessary for those searching for the information or considering the proposed response to know who the requester is. There are, of course, situations where a different course might be required. For example, if considering refusing the request on the grounds that it is vexatious under section 14 of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 or section 14 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000; it will often be necessary to speak with other areas of the organisation, especially persons responsible for handling complaints. In such circumstances it would be necessary for those being consulted to know the identity of the requester, otherwise the evidence required in order to justify reliance upon the vexatious provisions could not be gathered.

In normal circumstances, public authorities should probably be removing personal data such as a requester’s name, place of work and job title (where included) from a request before sending it out to those who need to perform searches for information or those who, in accordance with the authority’s internal procedures, need to approve responses before they’re issued. Only where the identity of the requester is directly relevant to the response, such as where consideration is being given to refusing the request on the grounds that it is vexatious, should the identity of the requester be disclosed otherwise it may amount to a breach of data protection law.

It may be relevant at this juncture to look, briefly, at the applicant blind requirement of freedom of information law. The applicant blind requirement is not specifically provided for within the relevant legislation; however, it has been understood for some considerable time that requests ought to be dealt with in a way that means that they are applicant blind.  The applicant blind requirement is often largely over-stated.  There are clearly situations where the applicant’s identity will be relevant; for example is it a request for that person’s own personal data or is it a vexatious/repeated request or are you aware of any disability which may mean that you need to make reasonable adjustments in terms of the Equality Act 2010?  If public authorities applied the applicant blind requirement absolutely and slavishly, it would cause difficulties in those situations and also in others.

The purpose of the applicant blind test is to ensure that, other than where the exemption necessitates it, the requester’s identity does not form part of the decision in whether to apply an exemption or in the application of the public interest balancing test. Anonymising FOI requests when they go out to the wider organisation or to selected individuals for comment/approval assists to ensure that the applicant blind aspect of the FOI regime is also complied with.

Alistair Sloan

If you require advice and assistance in connection with a freedom of information or data protection matter then contact Alistair Sloan on 0141 229 0880. Alternatively you can send Alistair and E-mail.

FOISA Vexatious decision notice appealed to Court of Session

Section 14 in both the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (“FOIA”) and the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (“FOISA”) enable an authority not to comply with a request for information that is vexatious.  What is meant by vexatious in Section 14 of FOIA has been the subject of litigation all the way to the Court of Appeal and the leading authority is Dransfield and another v The Information Commissioner and others [2015] EWCA Civ 454; [2015] 1 WLR 5316.  However, there has not yet been any litigation in Scotland on the meaning of vexatious within Section 14 of FOISA; the Scottish Information Commissioner’s guidance [pdf] on the subject appears to draw heavily on the Dransfield decision.

Those who make a point of reading the Scottish Information Commissioner’s regular round-ups of decisions will note that the most recent one informs us of an appeal to the Court of Session against a decision of the Scottish Information Commissioner which upheld the authority’s use of Section 14.  If the appeal proceeds, it will be the first time that the Scottish courts will have considered Section 14 of FOISA.

It will be interesting to see whether the Court of Session adopts the Dransfield position, or whether it takes a different approach to vexatious requests in Scotland.  If the Court of Session does publish an Opinion, we will of course cover it on this blog.

Alistair Sloan

We are able to provide advice and assistance in connection with a range of Freedom of Information matters, including appeals against decisions of both the Scottish and UK Information Commissioners.  If you would like to do discuss a Freedom of Information, or any other Information Law, matter with us then you can contact Alistair Sloan on 0345 450 0123.  Alternatively, you can send him an E-mail.