Vexed by vexatious Freedom of Information (FOI) requests

Vexed by vexatious Freedom of Information (FOI) requests

The Freedom of Information Act is being tested in the small village of Rothbury in Northumberland.

A tribunal hearing set to take place in Newcastle on 22 March spotlights the issue that public authorities face in dealing with habitual and vexatious requests for information.

The case of Anthony Kell v The Information Commissioner and Rothbury Parish Council results from an appeal against a judgement by the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Rothbury is small civic parish of around 2,600 people in mid-Northumberland. It’s a beautiful part of the country. It's also my home. I live 10 miles further up the valley in a hamlet called Holystone.

Digging for information

The complainant, Mr Kell, requested a variety of information from Rothbury Parish Council on 14 and 21 April 2015, relating to complaint procedures, records management and a contract for gardening services.

The parish council refused the request, the latest in a series from Mr Kell, deeming it vexatious. Mr Kell appealed the decision to the Information Commissioner’s Office.

In a judgement on 7 October 2015 (Reference: FS50584415, opens as a PDF), the Information Commissioner cited the volume of requests made by the complainant as unreasonable behaviour.

I’d urge anyone working in public information access or public relations to read the strongly worded judgement.

Cost of freedom of information

Rothbury has an annual budget of £52,000 raised from a Council Tax precept. It employs a clerk six hours a week. Councillors work on a voluntary basis.

Having read through council minutes for the last six month I estimate Rothbury’s legal costs through dealing with Mr Kell’s FOI requests are running at around £30,000 for this financial year. Numerous projects have had to be shelved.

Under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 any member of the public may make a FOI request for information from public authorities.

The Act has made a significant contribution to the transparency of public services and the promotion of best practice. FOI requests have been used to undercover bad practice, negligence and mismanagement.

But there’s clearly an issue of proportionality. The Information Commissioner’s view is that the volume of requests made by the complainant, Mr Kell, in the Rothbury case is unreasonable.

It also said that that providing information was unlikely to bring about a resolution or result in a cessation of Mr Kell’s behaviour towards the Council.

Second judgement by Information Commissioner

It’s a point reinforced by a second judgement in favour of Rothbury Parish Council by the Information Commissioner in January.

In this instance Mr Kell wrote to the Council on 2 September 2015 requesting ten items of information relating to the employment terms of the Council clerk.

The Council turned down the request believing it to be vexatious. Mr Kell again appealed the decision to the Information Commission’s Officer.

The Commissioner upheld the Parish Council’s position and took the view that the requests were related to the complainant’s previous requests. You can read the full judgement for yourself (Reference: FS50599814, opens as a PDF).

According to the Northumberland Gazette Mr Kell has appealed this decision. It is not clear whether this appeal will also form part of the tribunal hearing on 22 March.

The outcome of the tribunal hearing could itself be appealed but only on a point of law.

Ultimately anyone thinking about submitting an FOI request should think wisely about the value exchange. The outcome ought to be able to justify the time and effort spent and use of public money.

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