Tribunal Upholds Decision That FOIA Request was Vexatious: McTighe v The Information Commissioner & Anor

Citation: [2023] UKFTT 940 (GRC)
Judgment on

Introduction

In the matter of John McTighe v The Information Commissioner & Anor [2023] UKFTT 940 (GRC), the First-Tier Tribunal (General Regulatory Chamber) has considered an appeal concerning the vexatious nature of a Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) request. The Tribunal upheld the previous Decision Notice of the Information Commissioner, agreeing that the request was indeed vexatious under section 14(1) of the FOIA. The Tribunal was presided over by a panel including Brian Kennedy KC.

Key Facts

John McTighe, the appellant, requested information from the Welsh Government pertaining to Trawscymru Annual Reports and Strategy Board minutes. His request was refused under section 14(1) of the FOIA on the grounds that it was vexatious. This decision was initially disputed through an internal review, subsequent to which McTighe appealed to the Information Commissioner. The Commissioner’s Decision Notice dated 21 February 2023 supported the Welsh Government’s refusal, prompting the present appeal.

Vexatious Requests

The Tribunal referred to the legal principles concerning vexatious requests as set out in prior cases, notably Dransfield v Information Commissioner and Devon County Council & Anor [2012] UKUT 440 (AAC), which was approved by the Court of Appeal. These principles assist in determining whether a request is a manifestly unjustified, inappropriate, or improper use of the FOIA.

Harassment and Distress to Staff

The Tribunal considered the extent to which the request caused harassment or distress to staff, guided by the Upper Tribunal’s findings in Dransfield, which state that the intention of section 14 is to protect public authority resources from squander.

Public Interest Consideration

The Tribunal examined public interest considerations, weighing them against the inappropriate nature of the FOIA requests.

Repeated Requests

The Tribunal reviewed prior decisions related to the appellant’s requests and internal tribunal decisions to establish whether there is a pattern of behavior by the appellant that could be considered obsessive or unreasonable.

Outcomes

The Tribunal found unanimously that the appeal lacked a serious purpose, stemming from an ongoing campaign against the Welsh Government and targeting an individual staff member, which was not in the Public Interest. Significant harassment and distress to staff were caused by the appellant’s conduct, and the Tribunal agreed with the Commissioner’s findings that the requests were vexatious. Consequently, the appeal was dismissed.

Furthermore, the Tribunal considered applications for further orders, including potential monetary penalties against the Appellant for unreasonable conduct in bringing the appeal, aimed at deterring persistent vexatious behavior. This is still deliberated upon, with the Tribunal inviting further submissions on the issue.

Conclusion

The Tribunal has robustly applied established legal principles on what constitutes a vexatious request under FOIA, encompassing an evaluation of the intent, purpose, and impact of such requests. It confirmed that the principles established in Dransfield are applicable as a test for vexatiousness, emphasizing the safeguarding of public authority resources against disproportionate use of FOIA.

The decision demonstrates the careful balance that must be struck between facilitating the right to information and preventing the abuse of the FOIA process. It underscores that where requests are found to lack a serious purpose, cause undue harassment and distress, or serve as continuations of obsessive campaigns, they can be lawfully refused as vexatious. The ongoing considerations for further deterrence measures highlight the Tribunal’s commitment to protecting the FOIA from misuse.

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