UK Commissioner Addresses Handling Vexatious Requests

16 May 2013

The British information commissioner’s office May 15 issued extensive guidance on dealing with “vexatious” requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

The guidance “is clearly going to lead to many more requests being refused as vexatious,” according to an eight-page letter sent by the Campaign for Freedom of Information to the government to detail its objections to proposed changes to the British freedom of information law that are aimed in part at reducing vexatious requests.  (See related report.)  The group argued that the guidance, and a recent court decision, makes it “wholly unreasonable” for the government to proceed with legislation.

The 37-page guidance carefully parses the meaning of the word “vexatious” and provides a long list of “indicators”:

–          Abusive or aggressive language,  

–          Burden on the authority

–          Personal grudges

–          Unreasonable persistence

–          Unfounded accusations

–          Intransigence

–          Frequent or overlapping requests

–          Deliberate intention to cause annoyance

The goal was to being “greater clarity” to the area, wrote Graham Smith, Deputy Commissioner and Director of Freedom of Information, in the wake of an Upper Tribunal court decision that addressed the topic.

“Much of our guidance focuses on what is meant by the term, and more specifically, what a public authority should do to satisfy itself that a request is vexatious,” Smith wrote.

“The short answer to that is that the public authority should be asking itself whether the request is likely to cause a disproportionate or unjustified level of disruption, irritation or distress. The longer answer is, of course, to read the guidance, though the words of the Upper Tribunal on this still ring true: there is no magic formula.”

Alternative approaches to deeming a request vexatious are explored. The guidance notes that rejections may generate strong reactions and counsel consideration of using a “a more conciliatory approach would practically address the problem before choosing to refuse the request, as this may help to prevent any unnecessary disputes from arising.” A variety of suggestions are made.

The guidance also addresses the evidence the information commissioner would expect public authorities to provide in the event of a complaint to the commissioner, and “touches on the issues of round robin requests and ‘fishing’ expeditions.”

The ICO has also issued new guidance on repeated requests and on the Environmental Information Regulations equivalent of “manifestly unreasonable exceptions.” Also updated are “for the public” webpages to reflect what we’re telling public authorities, including a new list of ‘dos and don’ts’ to help requesters get the best result from making a legitimate request.

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