FOI frequently asked questions
What is the Freedom of Information Act?
The Freedom of Information (FOI) Act establishes a statutory right of access to information.
Who can I request information from under the FOI Act?
The FOI Act will apply to approximately 100,000 public authorities, including Central and Local Government, Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the armed forces, the police, hospitals, GPs and dentists, schools, universities, publicly-funded museums and many other bodies. Northern Ireland has decided to adopt and operate the Act in line with England and Wales.
What rights do the public have?
A person who writes to a public authority and asks for information will have the right to be informed in writing whether or not the authority holds the information. If it does, to have that information communicated to them, subject to clearly defined exemptions.
The person making the request can be resident anywhere in the world.
Does the Act have to be quoted when a request for information is made?
No. Applicants do not have to specify that they are making the request under the Act. It is the duty of the local authority to provide assistance to help clarify requests made, especially if they are vague.
Does the Act consider that information obtained may be used commercially or to bring legal proceedings?
This cannot be considered as the applicant making the request is under no obligation to provide a reason as to why they require the information.
How can an application be made?
The request for information has to satisfy certain conditions, namely:
- It must be in writing, which includes email (other than for Environmental Information)
- State the name of the applicant;
- State an address for correspondence which may be an email address; and
- Describe the information requested.
An applicant can hand their request to any employee of the Council and expect that it will be dealt with. However, the applicant should be encouraged to address the request to the department they require the information from to ensure that their request is dealt with promptly.
Will there be a charge?
London Borough of Richmond Upon Thames’ Publication Scheme sets out which documents levy a charge and which documents do not levy a charge. Where a fee is levied, there will be an hourly charge, for time spent searching for documents and processing the application and for supervising inspection of documents. Photocopying charges are also imposed in such circumstances.
Where a fee is levied an applicant will receive a Fees Notice which must be paid within a three month period, before the application can be processed.
Are there time limits in which the information requested must be furnished?
Unless an exemption applies the information must, if it is held, be furnished within 20 working days.
What is the procedure if an exemption applies?
If an exemption applies then the authority has "reasonable" time to consider whether the information can be released or not.
The applicant has to be notified in writing within the 20 day period that an exemption applies and an appropriate date by which a decision will be made.
Is there any information to which the applicant would not be entitled?
Yes, there are certain exemptions (the Information Commissioner's website has more information on exemptions). Many of the exemptions will be subject to a “public interest” test. Where the public interest test applies, the authority will still be required to disclose the information, unless it can demonstrate that the public interest in maintaining the exemption (withholding the information) outweighs the public interest in disclosing it. In this case the applicant will be informed by way of a notice served by the Council. Some of the exemptions are “absolute”, which means that the public interest test does not have to be applied.
Can the applicant request to see information held by the Council about another member of the public?
In theory the Act gives individuals rights of access to personal information about other people where disclosure would not breach the Data Protection Principles. However, in practice there are virtually no circumstances where such disclosure would occur. Examples of third party information which is disclosable are attendees at Council meetings and salaries of very senior staff.
How should the applicant be notified that their request for information has been refused?
If the information is withheld the applicant must be given a refusal notice
If a request for information is refused can the applicant take the matter further?
Requestors have a right of appeal using the Council's complaints procedure. The appeal should be dealt with by someone other than the person who made the original decision.
Is there any outside body that regulates the FOIA ?
The Act and Regulations are regulated by the Information Commissioner (“the Commissioner”) who has responsibility for regulating both the Freedom of Information Act and the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), together with assuming regulatory responsibility for the EIRs.
Are there any criminal sanctions for non compliance with the Act?
If staff conceal, alter or deliberately destroy information, they themselves may be liable to be prosecuted, for which the penalty can be a fine in the Magistrates Court of up to £5000.
If the internal complaints procedure has been exhausted what is the next course of action?
If the decision not to disclose information is upheld then the applicant should be advised as to their right of appeal to the office of the Information Commissioner.
Any decision not to disclose information will be subject to an appeal to the independent Information Commissioner. Decisions of the Information Commissioner can be challenged by the applicant or the public authority to the Information Tribunal, free of charge, and to the courts on a point of law.
What is the difference between this Act and the Data Protection Act 1998?
Local authorities are used to dealing with subject access requests under the Data Protection Act. This does not change and requests made for personal data will still be dealt with under the Data Protection Act. The FOI Act gives a statutory right of access to all information held by a local authority. The FOI Act will give individuals additional rights of access to personal information about other people where disclosure would not breach the Data Protection Act.