In many cases concerning s. 14(1) of FOIA – vexatious requests – a relevant factor is that the requester has complained about the conduct of an employee, but that complaint has not been upheld. Ensuing requests are often considered by some to be harassing and obsessive. The Tribunal has recently overturned a decision notice in which the Commissioner had agreed with the local authority on those points.

Conway v IC (EA/2011/0224) concerned a requester who had been in communication with the Council for some years, in the course of which he had raised concerns that the role of “Senior Responsible Officer” and the “Section 151 Officer” were held by the same individual, which, in his view, represented a conflict of interests. His complaint to the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy was not upheld. He had sight of the redacted version of its investigation report. He then contacted the Council with a number of detailed questions about its input into the Institute’s investigation.

The Council refused the request, relying on s. 14(1). The Commissioner agreed. The Tribunal did not.

The Tribunal found that “harassing” should be given its ordinary meaning, that is, to disturb persistently, bother continually, pester or persecute. In this case, the Council officer concerned was very senior; the subject matter concerned a high profile project that involved many millions of pounds of public money over 10 years. This had attracted a high degree of public interest in the press and on the internet. The Tribunal found that, in such circumstances, the public is likely to raise questions, and “such questions may be numerous and may on occasion be repeated”. It was not satisfied that a “harassing effect” had been demonstrated. The present case was, in the Tribunal’s view, entirely unlike the leading s. 14 case of Rigby v IC and Blackpool NHS Trust [2011] I Info LR 643.

The Council had also argued that the requester’s complaint giving rise to the Institute’s investigation constituted harassment of the senior Council officer. The Tribunal disagreed: it found “no evidence of a personal attack or comments of a provocative nature made by the Appellant against the named council employee”.

The Tribunal also disagreed that the request was obsessive: the request was concise and precise, and arose out of the Institute’s report which had recently been received – in those circumstances, the Tribunal could not see any relevant context or history which would demonstrate obsessiveness.

The Tribunal also observed that “whether the request creates a “strain on resources”, that is not relevant to the question of whether it is vexatious. If the Council wished to argue that they ought not to be required to comply with the request on this basis, then it ought to have relied on section 12 FOIA. It did not do so.”

The Council was ordered to deal with the

Robin Hopkins