Tribunal Rules FOIA Request Not Vexatious: Key Legal Principles and Outcomes

Citation: [2023] UKFTT 1036 (GRC)
Judgment on

Introduction

In the First-Tier Tribunal case of Stephen Pollard v The Information Commissioner (EA/2023/0019/V), the Tribunal undertook a detailed analysis of whether a Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) request was vexatious. This article delves into the key topics discussed, with an emphasis on the legal principles, and decisions that led to the Tribunal’s outcome. It serves as a concise resource for UK legal practitioners seeking to understand the application of FOIA and the characterization of vexatious requests.

Key Facts

Mr. Stephen Pollard, the Appellant, submitted an FOIA request to Royal Holloway, University of London, concerning the sharing of information about incidents of anti-social behavior (ASB) by students. The University, in due course, classified Mr. Pollard’s request as vexatious under section 14(1) of FOIA. This decision was upheld by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), prompting Mr. Pollard to appeal to the Tribunal. The main contention revolved around the history of correspondence, the burden on the University, the motive of the request, its value or purpose, and any consequential distress to the staff.

The Tribunal applied the legal principles set forth under section 14(1) of FOIA — providing that a public authority need not comply with a vexatious request. In evaluating vexatiousness, the Tribunal noted several guiding principles drawn from the Upper Tribunal and Court of Appeal’s decisions, particularly the Dransfield case ([2012] UKUT 440 (AAC) and [2015] EWCA Civ 454), CP v Information Commissioner ([2016] UKUT 427 (AAC)), and Cabinet Office v IC and Ashton ([2018] UKUT 208 (AAC)):

  • It is the nature of the request, not the requester, that determines vexatiousness.
  • ”Vexatious” is an adaptable term implying a clearly unjustified or improper use of process.
  • A variety of factors, beyond a fixed list, need consideration to reach a balanced judgment.
  • Predominant factors usually include the request’s burden on the authority, the requester’s motive, request value or seriousness, and the harassment or distress caused to staff.
  • The requester’s past conduct and history of FOIA requests may be considered in context.
  • Public interest in the request’s subject matter is a relevant balancing factor but not always decisive.

In applying these principles to the specific circumstances of Mr. Pollard’s request, the Tribunal focussed on assessing whether his conduct constituted a misuse of the formal procedure outlined by the FOIA.

Outcomes

The Tribunal concluded that the ICO’s decision was in error and allowed the appeal. They found that:

  • The burden of Mr. Pollard’s requests had been escalated inadvertently due to his misunderstanding of the process, rather than a systematic abuse of the FOIA mechanism.
  • The subject matter of Mr. Pollard’s request, relating to student ASB, was of genuine public interest, and his motive was not solely a personal matter.
  • The request served a serious purpose, aiming to gather data on new collaborative efforts to mitigate ASB issues.
  • There was insufficient evidence before the Tribunal that the request had caused distress or harassment to staff.

Consequently, the Tribunal determined that the request in question was not vexatious, and the College was directed to respond in accordance with s.1(1)(b) FOIA or inform the Appellant why no further response was necessary.

Conclusion

In Stephen Pollard v The Information Commissioner, the Tribunal underscored that the determination of vexatiousness in FOIA requests is multifaceted and context-dependent. This case reaffirms the significance of intent, conduct, and the substance of the information sought in consideration of what constitutes a vexatious request. The decision illustrates the legal system’s careful balancing of the right to information against the potential burden on public authorities and the protection of their staff. It is a noteworthy precedent for public authorities and requesters alike in navigating the complex landscape of information rights.

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