FOIA Appeal Case Highlights Importance of Consent and Balancing Interests

Citation: [2024] UKFTT 7 (GRC)
Judgment on

Introduction

The case of Reuben Kirkham v The Information Commissioner & Anor is illustrative of the complexities involved in handling appeals under the UK’s Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). The case centered on an appellant’s right to access information held by a public authority and the balancing act between individual privacy rights and the public interest.

Key Facts

Reuben Kirkham sought information concerning Alan Dransfield, who had been barred from using the section 50 complaint procedure under the FOIA. Kirkham’s request included three parts: (i) email correspondence between Dransfield and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), (ii) internal minutes or correspondence about the decision to impose the ban, and (iii) content of section 50 complaints rejected under section 50(2)(c). The ICO refused to release the information under section 40(2) of the FOIA, claiming they did not hold the requested information and that releasing it would violate the data protection principles.

The tribunal’s decision revolved around several key legal principles:

  1. Legality of Request Scope Interpretation: The ICO’s interpretation of Kirkham’s request was challenged for being too narrow, neglecting the context in which the request was made. The tribunal found this interpretation to be unlawful, emphasizing the need for public authorities to consider requests within the wider context.

  2. Consent Under GDPR: The case analyzed whether consent given by Dransfield was sufficient under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). It concluded that consent must be specific, informed, freely given, and unambiguous, which was not met in this case.

  3. Balance of Interests Under GDPR: Article 6 (1)(f) of the GDPR requires a balance between the legitimate interest pursued (public access to information) and the data subject’s rights and freedoms. The tribunal concurred with the ICO that disclosure would not be necessary or fair to Mr. Dransfield.

  4. Standard of Proof: The ICO had to prove, on the balance of probabilities, that no information requested was held. Applying the standard from Preston V ICO & Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police [2022] UKUT 344, the tribunal was not satisfied with the evidence provided by the ICO regarding the absence of information related to how the decision against Dransfield was reached.

  5. Grounds for Appeal: The appellant contended that the ICO’s handling of his FOIA request did not comply with section 1, that any consent by Dransfield was not duly considered, and that the ICO had not acquitted itself of the duty to conduct sufficient searches for information.

Outcomes

The tribunal allowed the appeal in part, specifically in the case of part (ii) of the request, instructing the ICO to undertake a fresh search for any relevant information about how the decision against Dransfield was taken. For parts (i) and (iii), the tribunal deemed the issue academic since the information had been released post-decision.

Conclusion

The tribunal’s decision underscores the necessitated thorough application of legal principles when considering FOIA requests. It reinforces the importance of proper consent under the GDPR, the significance of a genuine balance of interests, and a rigorous, fair, and broader interpretation of information requests. For legal professionals, this case serves as a reminder of the continuing development of informational rights jurisprudence in the UK’s digital and data-driven age.

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