Vexatious and manifestly unreasonable requests: definitive guidance from the Upper Tribunal

February 7th, 2013

Public authorities often have cause to consider whether to treat requests for information as vexatious (section 14 of FOIA) or manifestly unreasonable (regulation 12(4)(b) of the EIR). Precise definitions of those terms are difficult to pin down. They are not supplied by legislation. There is no binding authority from appellate courts or tribunals on their meaning in the information rights context. The Information Commissioner’s guidance is long-standing, but First-Tier Tribunals vary in the extent to which they use that guidance.

In three distinct but related decisions published today, the Upper Tribunal (Judge Wikeley) has filled this gap, providing what is (for now) the definitive, binding guidance on what vexatiousness and manifest unreasonableness mean in this context, and how reliance on those provisions should be approached. The cases are Dransfield, Craven and Ainslie, with Dransfield serving as the lead case (for summaries of the first-instance decisions, use Panopticon’s search function).

The key principles of general application are summarised below, followed by observations on the three specific appeals.

What kind of a creature is section 14 of FOIA?

Section 14 is not stricly speaking an ‘exemption’. The purpose of the exemptions in Part 2 of FOIA “is to protect the information because of its inherent nature or quality. The purpose of section 14, on the other hand, must be to protect the resources (in the broadest sense of that word) of the public authority from being squandered on disproportionate use of FOIA (to that extent I agree with the observations of the FTT in Lee v Information Commissioner and King’s College Cambridge EA/2012/0015, 0049 and 0085 at [50])… To that extent, section 14 of FOIA operates as a sort of legislative “get out of jail free card” for public authorities. Its effect is to relieve the public authority of dealing with the request in issue, except to the limited extent of issuing a refusal notice as required by section 17. In short, it allows the public authority to say in terms that “Enough is enough – the nature of this request is vexatious so that section 1 does not apply.”” (Dransfield, paras 10-11).

What does ‘vexatious’ mean in this context?

“’Vexatious’ is a protean word, i.e. one that takes its meaning and flavour from its context.” The dictionary definition is only a starting point: irritation or annoyance alone does not suffice – public scrutiny may be irritating or annoying to some, but it is the essence of FOIA.

“The question ultimately is this – is the request vexatious in the sense of being a manifestly unjustified, inappropriate or improper use of FOIA?” (Dransfield, para 43).

Guidance and illustrations

Judge Wikeley offered illustrative guidance under four headings (see the discussion at paras 28-39 of Dransfield). At para 28, he said this:

“Such misuse of the FOIA procedure may be evidenced in a number of different ways. It may be helpful to consider the question of whether a request is truly vexatious by considering four broad issues or themes – (1) the burden (on the public authority and its staff); (2) the motive (of the requester); (3) the value or serious purpose (of the request) and (4) any harassment or distress (of and to staff). However, these four considerations and the discussion that follows are not intended to be exhaustive, nor are they meant to create an alternative formulaic check-list. It is important to remember that Parliament has expressly declined to define the term “vexatious”. Thus the observations that follow should not be taken as imposing any prescriptive and all encompassing definition upon an inherently flexible concept which can take many different forms.”

Background and context can be highly relevant. As to burden, questions of volume, breadth, pattern and duration of requests may be relevant. Note, however, that volume alone might not be decisive. Furthermore, an individual request can be vexatious.

While FOIA is axiomatically motive blind, “the proper application of section 14 cannot side-step the question of the underlying rationale or justification for the request” (Dransfield, para 34).

Series of requests can sometimes start out innocuously, but fall into “vexatiousness by drift” (Dransfield, para 37).

As to serious purpose or value, “the weight to be attached to that value or serious purpose may diminish over time. For example, if it is truly the case that the underlying grievance has been exhaustively considered and addressed, then subsequent requests (especially where there is “vexatiousness by drift”) may not have a continuing justification” (Dransfield, para 38).

Notes of caution

Judge Wikeley confirmed that the term ‘vexatious’ here applies to the request, not the requester (Dransfield, para 19).

He also warned that the right to deem a single request vexatious “should not be seen as giving licence to public authorities to use section 14 as a means of forestalling genuine attempts to hold them to account” and that “a lack of apparent objective value cannot alone provide a basis for refusal under section 14, unless there are other factors present which raise the question of vexatiousness. In any case, given that the legislative policy is one of openness, public authorities should be wary of jumping to conclusions about there being a lack of any value or serious purpose behind a request simply because it is not immediately self-evident” (Dransfield, paras 36 and 38 respectively).

Where does this leave the Commissioner’s guidance?

The guidance remains valuable, but the ‘five factors’ are at best ‘pointers to potentially relevant considerations’; they are a means to an end (the end being the ‘ultimate test’ – see above) (Dransfield, paras 39-45).

Is the test for ‘manifest unreasonableness under the EIR any different?

A short answer: no (Craven, para 30).

Regulation 12(4)(b) is different to section 14 in three ways. “First, section 14 excuses the public authority from responding, but is not formally a FOIA exemption, whereas regulation 12(4)(d) is structurally an exception under the EIR. Second, the EIR provision is expressly subject to a public interest test. Third, under the EIR there is a presumption in favour of disclosure (see regulation 12(2))” (Craven, para 19).

However, the approach to this provision is the same as the approach to section 14 of FOIA (see above), both for analytical reasons and pragmatic ones (if the approach is the same, the question of which regime applies need not be analysed).

Unlike FOIA, the EIR do not have a separate exception for cost of compliance. Regulation 12(4)(b) is the provision relied upon when the cost of compliance is disproportionate. What about FOIA? Can section 14 be used even where section 12 might also have been an option (as has been argued at First-Tier level: see the IPCC and TieKey cases, for example)? The Upper Tribunal’s answer is yes, it can. Judge Wikeley did, however, say this (Craven, para 31):

“Notwithstanding the above, if the public authority’s principal reason (and especially where it is the sole reason) for wishing to reject the request concerns the projected costs of compliance, then as a matter of good practice serious consideration should be given to applying section 12 rather than section 14 in the FOIA context. Unnecessary resort to section 14 can be guaranteed to raise the temperature in FOIA disputes. In principle, however, there is no reason why excessive compliance costs alone should not be a reason for invoking section 14, just as may be done under regulation 12(4)(b), and in either case whether it is a “one-off” request or one made as part of a course of dealings.”

The outcomes in the individual appeals

In Dransfield (which concerned a series of requests about lightning protection measures), the appeals by the Commissioner and the public authority succeeded. The request fell within section 14. Judge Wikeley concluded inter alia that:

“I have no hesitation in accepting Mr Cross’s primary submission. The FTT adopted too restrictive an approach to the application of section 14 in paragraphs [31]-[38] of the reasons for the decision. In particular, the FTT relied on an unwarranted distinction between two types of case in which there has been a past course of dealings. The FTT’s view was, in effect, that where the link between the request in issue and the previous course of dealing was one of subject matter alone, then the public authority could not treat the request as vexatious on the basis of that course of dealing, whatever other considerations might suggest. On the FTT’s approach, there had to be some “underlying grievance”, not simply a “similarity of subject matter” in order for section 14 to bite.”

In Craven (which concerned a series of requests about high voltage electric cables), the requester’s appeal was allowed on the questions of adequacy of reasons and the failure of the FTT to set out the reasons for the dissenting minority view, but the Upper Tribunal re-made the decision and concluded that section 14 and regulation 12(4)(b) had been correctly applied by the public authority.

In Ainslie, the requester’s appeal was allowed. He was found to have been acting firmly in the public interest, and “the FTT failed to find sufficient facts, and in particular to resolve certain important disputed issues on the evidence before it, and in doing so failed to provide adequate reasons for its decision” (Ainslie, para 26).

Other important points

These decisions also contain a number of points of general application beyond the vexatiousness context. All those involved in Tribunal litigation should note the following points.

The Upper Tribunal has held that, where a FTT decision is a majority one rather than unanimous, the FTT will err if it fails to set out the reasons for the minority view (Craven, para 42).

Further, while not a new point, the Upper Tribunal has confirmed the importance of FTTs giving adequate reasons (whether unanimous or majority decisions) to allow parties to know why they won or lost.

Judge Wikeley has cautioned that strike-out applications in information rights matters should not be resorted to lightly, but should only follow careful consideration (Craven, para 94).

Where section 14 or regulation 12(4)(b) are relied upon, “every effort should be made to ensure that the parties can participate in an oral hearing. This allows the relevant issues to be properly explored in a way that is simply not always possible on the papers” (Craven, para 95).

Tribunals should also be “more alive to the importance of making their processes accessible to ordinary citizens acting without the benefit of professional representation… was the request vexatious or manifestly unreasonable (or not)? The appellate process in such a case needs to focus on that question, rather than indulge in legalistic point-scoring. Tribunals are for users, after all, not just (if at all) for lawyers” (Craven, para 96).

Finally, Judge Wikeley observed that the preponderance of section 14 cases at Tribunal level was no reflection on the general usage of FOIA. At para 83 of Dransfield, he made this observation:

“As the American legal theorist Professor Karl Llewellyn wisely observed, litigated cases are inherently “pathological”; they bear the same relation to the broader set of disputes “as does homicidal mania or sleeping sickness, to our normal life” (The Bramble Bush (1960), p.58).”

For those who spend much of their life litigating, these last points are food for thought.

Tom Cross appeared for the Commissioner in all three appeals. Rachel Kamm and James Cornwell appeared for the public authorities in Dransfield and Craven respectively.

Robin Hopkins

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