Tribunal Upholds Decision on Vexatious Request in Paul Bentley v The Information Commissioner Case

Citation: [2024] UKFTT 18 (GRC)
Judgment on

Introduction

In the case of Paul Bentley v The Information Commissioner, the UK’s First-Tier Tribunal (General Regulatory Chamber) on Information Rights addressed the appeal made by Mr. Bentley against a decision by the Information Commissioner (ICO). This legal analysis will dissect the key components of the ruling and examine the principles applied by the Tribunal, which were underpinned by the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) and relevant case law.

Key Facts

Mr. Bentley, who was acting as a Litigant in person, appealed the ICO’s decision that upheld the Bank of England’s reliance on section 14 FOIA, which covers vexatious or repeated requests, to refuse Mr. Bentley’s request for information regarding the Bank’s legal costs in defending an employment tribunal matter.

The Tribunal reviewed the chronology of Mr. Bentley’s requests and his former employer’s responses, highlighting a pattern of behavior deemed burdensome and obsessive. This behavior led to the authorities’ treatment of Mr. Bentley’s request under section 14(1) FOIA as vexatious.

Vexatious Requests

Central to this case was the interpretation of “vexatious requests” as detailed in section 14 FOIA. The Tribunal evaluated the four issues outlined in the Upper Tribunal’s judgment in Information Commissioner v Devon CC & Dransfield [2012] UKUT 440 (AAC):

  1. The burden imposed by the request
  2. The requester’s motive
  3. The value or serious purpose of the request
  4. Harassment or distress to staff

The Tribunal adopted a holistic approach, as endorsed by the Dransfield case, considering the context and history, such as the number, breadth, pattern, and duration of Mr. Bentley’s prior requests.

Motive of Requester

FOIA is designed to be “motive blind”. However, motives are considered under section 14 when determining vexatiousness. The Tribunal inferred that even though Mr. Bentley had a genuine grievance, the scope and consistency of his requests and subsequent behaviors suggested an underlying intent to annoy and disrupt, reflecting concerns raised in the Independent Police Complaints Commission v Information Commissioner (EA/2011/0222).

Objective Value or Serious Purpose

In determining the objective value or serious purpose behind a request, public authorities should avoid hastily dismissing requests that do not immediately appear to serve the public interest. However, after considering Mr. Bentley’s reasons for requesting the information, the Tribunal found that his quest seemed to serve more of a private interest with little relevance to public concern.

Harassment or Distress to Staff

The distress caused to staff by Mr. Bentley’s requests was considered significant, where examples displayed in the Closed Bundle satisfied the Tribunal of unacceptable harassment and distress, a factor against Mr. Bentley in his appeal.

Proportionality and Final Judgment

The principle of proportionality played a key role in the Tribunal’s judgment, determining whether the request was “a manifestly unjustified, inappropriate, or improper use of a formal procedure” and whether Mr. Bentley’s expectations were disproportionate, eventually leading to the dismissal of the appeal.

Outcomes

The Tribunal dismissed the appeal, finding that the Information Commissioner did not err in law or discretion in the original decision notice. The Tribunal concluded that the public authority acted reasonably within a reasonable expectation a public authority should have shown in the prevailing circumstances.

Conclusion

In summarizing the case of Paul Bentley v The Information Commissioner, this ruling showcases the complexity involved in determining what constitutes a vexatious request under FOIA. The Tribunal relies on the legal framework set out by the FOIA and case law to navigate the facts presented and arrive at its decision, underscoring the importance of examining the history, pattern, and impact of the requests made by individuals when assessing their nature. Mr. Bentley’s behavior was collectively assessed to be burdensome, obsessive, and disproportionate, justifying the original decision to categorize the request as vexatious under section 14 of the FOIA.

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