Tribunal Clarifies Limits of FOIA in Fowler v Information Commissioner Case

Citation: [2024] UKFTT 190 (GRC)
Judgment on


The case of Richard Fowler v The Information Commissioner & Anor [2024] UKFTT 190 (GRC) presents a circumstance wherein the appellant, Mr. Richard Fowler, challenges the handling of his request for information under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). The First-tier Tribunal (General Regulatory Chamber) Information Rights considered the case on the papers and rendered a decision on the boundaries of FOIA, the duties of public authorities, and the legitimacy of the issues raised by the appellant.

Key Facts

The appellant sought to understand how the public could infer what information the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) could retrieve and disclose, particularly concerning the handling of records in a manner beneficial to disabled individuals. The EHRC, uncertain about the exact nature of the request and the information sought, ultimately interpreted the request as seeking a catalogue or index detailing their compliance work, which Mr. Fowler believed they were to retrieve from their internal systems.

Upon denying the request due to lack of clarity, the appellant sought a Decision Notice from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which was issued and found the EHRC did not hold information in the requested manner. Mr. Fowler appealed the Decision Notice, asserting that the request was not sufficiently addressed, and the ICO had erroneously interpreted the request.

Several legal principles guided the Tribunal’s decision-making process:

  1. The Definition of Information under FOIA: This case hinged on whether recorded information, as defined by FOIA Section 84, was actually held by the EHRC at the time of the request. The Tribunal reaffirmed that FOIA relates exclusively to recorded information that exists at the time of the request (Section 1(4)).

  2. Advice and Assistance Obligation: FOIA Section 16 places a duty on public authorities to provide reasonable advice and assistance to requesters. The EHRC fulfilled this duty by attempting to clarify and respond to Mr. Fowler’s request.

  3. Standard of Proof: In disputes over whether information is held, the balance of probabilities serves as the standard of proof (Preston v ICO [2022], Bromley v IC [2007]).

  4. Objective Reading of the Request: The objective reading of a request is crucial to determine the scope and obligation under Section 1(1) of FOIA, as highlighted by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport v IC [2010].


The Tribunal dismissed the appeal, finding that:

  • The original request sought an explanation rather than recorded information.
  • The EHRC appropriately interpreted the FOIA request and engaged substantively, as required under Section 16 of FOIA.
  • The appellant’s arguments did not provide a sustainable basis for questioning the DN or the EHRC’s interpretation.
  • The ICO was correct in its decision, stating that FOIA does not oblige public authorities to create new information or explain how they retrieve their records unless that explanation is contained within a record itself.


In conclusion, the Tribunal reasserted key principles of FOIA, emphasizing the act’s scope concerning existing recorded information. The dismissal of the appeal, thus, underscores the limitations of FOIA in requiring public authorities to generate new information or provide explanations not already in a recorded format. Public authorities are obligated to clarify requests and assist individuals, but they are not expected to produce or interpret information outside the confines of FOIA. This case illustrates the importance of precise language and clear intent in FOIA requests to ensure the requester’s objectives align with the statutory framework of information rights.