Freedom of Information: But What is Information? The Upper Tribunal Opines

We all know that section 1 gives us a right to request information from listed public authorities, but what does “information” mean? Information is defined by section 84 of FOIA (“‘information’ (subject to sections 51(8) and 75(2)) means information recorded in any form”). This somewhat opaque definition has generally been treated as meaning that a request is for information. It is not for copies of documents. If the public authority wants to type out the document in a different format, they can, so long as the information contained within that document is provided.

The question had to be confronted squarely by the Upper Tribunal in Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority v IC & Leapman [2014] UKUT 33 (AAC) (IPSA v IC_UT decision_Jan 2014). Mr Leapman had made a request to IPSA for receipts and invoices provided by particular MPs in support of their expenses claims. IPSA provided him with transcribed versions of those receipts and invoices. Mr Leapman was not satisfied; he wanted the originals. The ICO agreed. On appeal, so did the First-tier Tribunal (on which see Tom Ogg’s blog here). IPSA appealed to the Upper Tribunal.

Judge Williams dismissed the appeal. He accepted that a receipt will typically have “visual content to be seen, rather than read, but which may also require to be understood for the recipient to have appreciated the whole of the experience” (at [22]). (One leaves aside the suggestion that reading a receipt can be so heady as to warrant the term ‘experience’.) He set out the reasoning of the DN in detail and agreed with it. He relied on the example of trademarks, noting that “I cannot see how full information about a receipt or invoice that contains trademarks can be conveyed if the trademark material is not reproduced in the trademarked form so confirming that unique identity” (at [26]). Judge Williams declined to accept the suggestion that no information is conveyed by location of markings or handwriting: at [27]. In short, there was no error of law in refusing to accept the blanket submission of IPSA that nothing but the words mattered.

There was then a secondary issue concerning section 11(2), and whether it was reasonably practicable for IPSA to provide the original receipts. This too had been rejected by the FTT, and Judge Williams took the same view. In his view, section 11 was request specific, seeing as it directly cross-referred to the subsequent provisions which were also request specific. There was no basis for a “general limit on the duty” to comply with section 1: at [40]. IPSA was not entitled to any special status: at [42].

The Upper Tribunal’s judgment is perhaps counter-intuitive at first sight, but on analysis becomes difficult to dispute. It must be the case that some documents reveal recorded information simply by the way in which they are laid out, or the surrounding markings on the page. What if an MP has submitted faked receipts which IPSA have overlooked, but which on sight of the originals show the relevant logo or trademark to be slightly wrong thus revealing the deception? What if it is said that a document was purely private, but the original reveals it to have been printed on Council notepaper? That is surely what FOIA is for. However, the matter will be case-specific. This is not a disclosure exercise by the back-door – there will need to actually be something to see from the originals.

11KBW’s Robin Hopkins (who else?) appeared for the ICO.

Christopher Knight