Tribunal Rules in Favor of Appellant John Harrison in FOIA Duty to Assist Case

Citation: [2024] UKFTT 8 (GRC)
Judgment on

Introduction

The case of John Harrison v The Information Commissioner ([2024] UKFTT 00008 (GRC)) highlights several key issues relating to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) and the duty of public authorities to respond to requests for information. The decision of the First-tier Tribunal (General Regulatory Chamber) Information Rights explores the obligations on public authorities to clarify requests, provide advice and assistance, and the relevance of held information in decision-making by the Information Commissioner (ICO).

Key Facts

John Harrison, the Appellant, submitted a request to Chesterfield Royal Hospital NHS Trust (the Trust) for information about serious incidents and de-escalation reports within specific departments for the years 2015 to 2019. The Trust’s response failed to address parts of the request, specifically concerning “acute medician,” which was understood to mean “Acute Medicine.” After some correspondence and an unsatisfactory internal review by the Trust, Harrison complained to the ICO, who in turn decided in favor of the Trust’s non-disclosure on the grounds that the Trust did not hold the requested information. Harrison appealed to the First-tier Tribunal.

The decision discusses several key principles of FOIA:

  1. The General Right of Access (s1 FOIA): This establishes the requester’s right to be informed whether the information requested is held by the public authority and to have that information communicated if it is the case.

  2. Duty to Provide Advice and Assistance (s16 FOIA): This requires public authorities to assist requesters in making requests and to clarify their requests where necessary.

In this case, s1(1) of FOIA was a focal point as it was in dispute whether the Trust actually held the requested information. The Tribunal referred to the data contained in the NLRS material provided by the Appellant, which seemed to contradict the Trust’s claims of having no relevant incidents of a serious nature recorded.

The Tribunal also scrutinized the duty under s16(1) FOIA — to provide guidance and assistance reasonably expected of authorities — considering the Trust’s failure to clarify the ambiguous term “acute medician” and to aid the Appellant appropriately in his request.

Outcomes

The Tribunal allowed the appeal based on two findings:

  1. Breach of Duty to Advise and Assist: The Trust did not clarify the request with the Appellant nor did it respond fully to the Request as it failed to provide information relating to Acute Medicine.

  2. Held Information on Serious Incidents: The ICO did not sufficiently scrutinize the contention of the Trust that it held no information on level 2 serious incidents (deaths) for the requested period, despite evidence provided in the NLRS material indicating otherwise.

The Tribunal substituted the Decision Notice with direction for the Trust to provide the requested information about serious incidents and de-escalation request reports in both Accident and Emergency and Acute Medicine from 2015 to 2019.

Conclusion

In John Harrison v The Information Commissioner, the Tribunal’s decision underscores the importance of public authorities adhering to their duties under the FOIA to assist requesters and provide held information. It serves as a reminder that the ICO’s decisions are subject to scrutiny, particularly where there is evidence that may call into question whether a public authority holds the requested information. The decision reinforces that public authorities must be thorough and transparent when responding to FOIA requests and that the ICO must critically analyze claims of non-disclosure in light of all available evidence.

Related Summaries