The First-Tier Tribunal’s recent decision in Independent Police Complaints Commission v IC (EA/2011/0222) is very interesting and important. It concerns sections 14 (vexatious requests) and 12 (cost of compliance) of FOIA. The Tribunal has confirmed in resounding terms that cost alone can justify a section 14 finding, that a requester’s improper motive is relevant for section 14 purposes, and that the principle of aggregation of costs across separate requests is to be interpreted widely. On all these points, this decision will be welcomed by public authorities responding to unduly burdensome FOI requests.
The case concerned a requester with a keen interest in the work of the IPCC. The Tribunal said that his pattern of requests “focussed on no particular topic but appeared to range widely, even indiscriminately, over the whole spectrum of complaints that the IPCC investigates”. In particular, this case was concerned with two requests. One asked for IPCC managed investigation reports over a 3-year period (covering some 438 cases), the other was a multi-part request about a specific case which had been the subject of an earlier request. The IPCC had clearly had enough. It applied section 14 in refusing both requests.
While the Commissioner sympathised with aspects of the IPCC’s position (cost burden in particular), his overall conclusion – based on his five guiding questions for section 14 cases – was that the requests were not vexatious.
At Tribunal level, the IPCC relied on both section 14 and section 12. The Tribunal found in its favour on both counts.
Section 14 (vexatious requests)
On vexatious requests, the decision is worth quoting in some detail. At paragraph 14, it – like a number of Tribunals in recent cases – disapproved of an overly rigid application of the Commissioner’s five questions:
“The Tribunal considers that these requests were plainly vexatious when considered in the context of earlier requests or indeed in isolation. The criteria proposed in the ICO`s guidance are very helpful as a reference point. However, an approach which tests the request by simply checking how many of the five “boxes” are “ticked” is not appropriate. It is necessary to look at all the surrounding facts and apply them to the question whether the request is vexatious, a term not defined in FOIA but familiar to lawyers.”
It also found that cost alone can suffice for a section 14 finding – see paragraph 15:
“A request may be so grossly oppressive in terms of the resources and time demanded by compliance as to be vexatious, regardless of the intentions or bona fides of the requester. If so, it is not prevented from being vexatious just because the authority could have relied instead on s.12”.
This will be welcomed by those who find themselves unable to rely on section 12 due to the restricted list of activities which can be taken into account for cost purposes.
While cost can suffice regardless of motive, the Tribunal was emphatic that motive is relevant for section 14 purposes. In trenchant terms, it urged responsible use of FOIA (see paragraph 19):
“Abuse of the right to information under s.1 of FOIA is the most dangerous enemy of the continuing exercise of that right for legitimate purposes. It damages FOIA and the vital rights that it enacted in the public perception. In our view, the ICO and the Tribunal should have no hesitation in upholding public authorities which invoke s.14(1) in answer to grossly excessive or ill – intentioned requests and should not feel bound to do so only where a sufficient number of tests on a checklist are satisfied.”
In the present case, the Tribunal was not convinced of the requester’s good faith, and it considered his requests to be “not just burdensome and harassing but furthermore wholly unreasonable and of very uncertain purpose and dubious value, given the undiscriminating nature of the first request”. It had no hesitation in finding that section 14 had been correctly applied to the first request.
Section 12 (cost of compliance)
This provision was relied upon by the IPCC for the first time before the Tribunal. Interestingly, the Tribunal interpreted the Court of Appeal’s judgment on the late reliance issue (under the EIRs) in Birkett as meaning that the IPCC could rely on section 12 of FOIA late as of right – despite the Upper Tribunal’s rather different approach in APPGER (which is not referred to in this decision).
It was agreed that the cost limit was reached for the first request. The issue was whether section 12 applied to the second request. This turned on whether the costs of complying with that request could be aggregated, ie taken together with those for the first. Aggregation is provided for under the Information and Data Protection (Appropriate Limits and Fees) Regulations 2004. By regulation 5(2)(a), costs can be aggregated for requests which “relate, to any extent, to the same or similar information”. The Tribunal agreed with the IPCC that the requests in this case came within that provision. It said as follows (paragraphs 25-26):
“The second request was for specific details of a report which was a subject of an earlier request than those with which this appeal is concerned. It was the same kind of report as the 438 reports requested in the first request. We agree with the IPCC that the wording of Regulation 5(2) (a), for good reason, requires only a very loose connection between the two sets of information, hence the insertion of “to any extent” and “similar”. The information covered by the second request was quite obviously very similar in character to that described in the first. They were simply different reports.”
From a public authority perspective, this broad approach will be a welcome departure from the more restrictive analysis in cases such as Benson.
For a different take on the IPCC case, see this post from the ever-incisive FOI Man.