Tribunal Rules Error in Vexatious Request Assessment, Highlights Need for Individualized FOIA Evaluations

Citation: [2023] UKFTT 941 (GRC)
Judgment on

Introduction

In the case of Ian Dalton v The Information Commissioner & Anor ([2023] UKFTT 00941 (GRC)), we encounter the intersection of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA), the Information Tribunal’s process, and the principles governing what constitutes a ‘vexatious’ information request. This case analysis will dissect the First-tier Tribunal’s determination that the prior Decision Notice contained an error by not applying an individualized assessment to the request for information and by failing to consider the request’s specific merits as per the established legal principles.

Key Facts

Ian Dalton sought access to audio recordings of police interviews with Jimmy Savile, following earlier advice from Surrey Police that while they did not hold videotapes as initially requested, they did possess audio tapes. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) treated Dalton’s request for the audio tapes as vexatious under section 14(1) of the FOIA, primarily because it relied on an assessment from a 2014 Decision Notice without addressing the current context or conducting an individualized assessment of the new request. The Tribunal identified a need for careful consideration as technology advancements over time may reduce the burden on public authorities to fulfil such requests.

The case drew upon significant legal principles, primarily the definition and criteria for a ‘vexatious’ request under FOIA, as outlined in section 14(1). In essence, an individualized, “holistic and broad” analysis is mandated, examining the burden on the authority, the requester’s motive, the value or serious purpose of the request, and any potential harassment or distress caused. These criteria are derived from case law, specifically Dransfield v Information Commissioner ([2015] EWCA Civ 454) and its Upper Tribunal predecessor ([2012] UKUT 440 (AAC)). Furthermore, the Tribunal underscores the need to consider repeated or substantially similar requests under this framework judiciously, so as not to unduly penalize requesters following appropriate advice from a public authority.

Outcomes

The Tribunal decreed that the ICO erred in law by adopting a generic approach to all requests for similar information, which omitted the crucial individualized analysis required under the binding legal principals from Dransfield. It allowed the appeal on the basis that the Commissioner should not have relied solely on previous assessments to determine the vexatiousness of the current request. Consequently, the Tribunal directed Surrey Police to reassess Dalton’s FOIA request without considering it vexatious, while reserving its right to invoke other exemptions within FOIA if pertinent.

Conclusion

The Tribunal’s ruling in Ian Dalton v The Information Commissioner & Anor emphasizes the imperative for public authorities to conduct fresh and thorough evaluations of information requests in accordance with both the letter and spirit of FOIA. The decision reaffirms the jurisprudence that each FOIA request must undergo a case-specific evaluation considering the requester’s intent, burden to the public authority, request utility, and any accompanying distress. This ruling underscores the necessity of re-evaluating requests objectively, even if they pertain to data previously deemed vexatious, and ensuring that public authorities render decisions with up-to-date considerations and an eye towards the flexible nature of judicial precedents as technology and societal contexts evolve.

Related Summaries