Tribunal clarifies public authority's obligations under FOIA regarding information format requests

Citation: [2023] UKFTT 1084 (GRC)
Judgment on

Introduction

In the case of Aaron Walawalker v The Information Commissioner & Anor (2023), the First-Tier Tribunal (General Regulatory Chamber) on Information Rights adjudicated on an appeal concerning the obligations of a public authority under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). This analysis seeks to elucidate the legal principles at stake, based on the Tribunal’s decision document.

Key Facts

Aaron Walawalker (the Appellant) requested from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), which is part of the Department for Transport—a public authority—audio recordings of distress calls made from the English Channel and transcripts of those recordings. The MCA denied this request, citing various exemptions, and the Information Commissioner upheld their decision. Walawalker subsequently appealed this decision.

The appeal centered on three key grounds. Firstly, the Appellant contested the Commissioner’s interpretation of Section 11 of FOIA regarding the disclosure of information in a preferred format. Secondly, he argued that the public interest warranted the disclosure of the requested information. Thirdly, the Appellant pointed out inconsistencies with past disclosures made by the MCA in response to similar requests.

The Tribunal focused on Section 11(1) of FOIA, which addresses compliance with an expressed preference for the means of communication of the information. The Appellant argued that the public authority should disclose as many transcripts as practicable within the appropriate cost limit, suggesting an intertwining of Sections 11 and 12 of FOIA. The Tribunal clarified that the cost limit in Section 12 does not guide the reasonable practicability standard in Section 11.

Additionally, the Tribunal noted that the public interest in disclosure does not factor into determining what is “reasonably practicable” under Section 11(2). Instead, this determination should be made considering practicalities specific to the public authority handling the request.

The Tribunal also referenced the precedent set in Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority v Information Comr. [2015] EWCA Civ 388, where it was established that “all the circumstances” in Section 11(2) are broad in scope and include factors beyond the request’s cost.

Lastly, analogous reasoning from Innes was utilized to support the view that authorities are not obligated to convert information into a different format if it does not already exist in that form.

Outcomes

The Tribunal found that the MCA had acted in accordance with its obligations under FOIA, particularly Section 11. It was determined that the MCA was not reasonably practicable to provide the transcripts requested by the Appellant, given they would first have to be transcribed and redacted in consideration of the exemptions under Section 40(2).

The Tribunal’s decision dismissed the Appellant’s grounds for appeal. It was stated that the MCA’s previous voluntary disclosure of similar information does not obligate or bind it to do so again, nor does the conduct of other public authorities affect the MCA’s position.

Conclusion

Through the Tribunal’s decision in Walawalker v The Information Commissioner & Anor, it is reaffirmed that assessing the reasonable practicability of complying with a particular format of information request under Section 11 of FOIA is a separate consideration from cost thresholds mentioned under Section 12. Additionally, public interest considerations are not included in this assessment. This case underscores the autonomy of public authorities to determine the practicality of converting information into a requested format, guided by the legislation’s language and precedent caselaw.

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