Analysis of Compliance with FOIA Timeliness and Adequacy in Greenwood v Information Commissioner Case

Citation: [2024] UKFTT 220 (GRC)
Judgment on

Introduction

In the case of John Greenwood v The Information Commissioner, the First-tier Tribunal (General Regulatory Chamber) on Information Rights presided over an appeal concerning compliance with the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). The key issues centered on the timeliness of responses to FOIA requests and the adequacy of responses under various sections of the Act. This case analysis dissects the legal principles and their application, as articulated in the case law provided.

Key Facts

The appeal arose from John Greenwood, the appellant, who did not receive a response from the Public Authority (PA) to his FOIA request concerning the make and model of body-cams worn by security guards during a particular incident. After a complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and consequent communications between the ICO and PA, the Commissioner issued a decision notice finding a breach of section 10(1) FOIA but did not order any further steps as it was believed that a response had been provided by the PA.

Greenwood appealed on grounds of non-receipt of the response and failure of the Decision Notice to find a breach of section 17(1) FOIA. The Commissioner conceded that a mistake had occurred regarding the assertion that a response was given on a certain date and accepted a breach in section 10 FOIA but maintained that there was no breach concerning section 17(1) as no exemptions were applied by the PA in providing the information.

The following legal principles are key to understanding the case:

  • Section 1 FOIA: Establishes the right of individuals to access information held by public authorities and the duty of those authorities to provide such information.
  • Section 10(1) FOIA: Specifies the requirement to respond to an FOIA request “promptly” or at most within twenty working days following receipt.
  • Section 17(1) FOIA: Details the obligations of a public authority to notify an applicant if it is relying on an exemption under Part II FOIA as a basis for not providing information.
  • Section 50(4) FOIA: Outlines the Commissioner’s powers to specify steps a public authority must take if found in violation of certain FOIA requirements, including undeclared communication of information.
  • Section 58(1) FOIA: Defines the Tribunal’s powers to correct decisions by the Commissioner if it finds there has been an error in law or a wrongful exercise of discretion.

Outcomes

The Tribunal allowed the appeal in part and made a substitute decision notice. Crucially, it was determined:

a) The Commissioner had erred by not ordering steps in response to the PA’s failure to communicate as per section 50(4) FOIA, and this part of the appeal was allowed.

b) Since the PA had later provided the requested information on 22 November 2023, no further action was required on their part, and this element of the appeal was dismissed.

Notably, the Tribunal found no breach of section 17(1) FOIA, as the public authority had not relied upon any exemptions in their response.

Conclusion

This case underscores the importance of adherence to procedural requirements under the FOIA. The Tribunal confirmed the Commissioner’s duty to instruct public authorities on corrective steps when they fail to communicate adequately in response to information requests. Additionally, the case reaffirms the boundaries of the Tribunal’s review and reinforces that public authorities must precisely and timely address information requests, pursuant to the specifics of section 10 and other relevant provisions of the FOIA.

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