Information “reasonably accessible” despite hefty charge

In Davis v ICO and Health and Social Care Information Centre (case no. EA/2012/0175, judgment 24 January 2013) the First-Tier Tribunal applied the absolute exemption under section 21 of FOIA 2000 for information which is reasonably accessible to an applicant other than under section 1. The requested information consisted of health statistics which the public authority was willing to provide to the appellant under its publication scheme for a charge of £1,550. The appellant argued that the charge meant the information could not be considered to be reasonably accessible to a person of ordinary means.

 Section 19 of FOIA requires public authorities to adopt publication schemes, subject to approval by the Information Commissioner, for the dissemination of information with or without charge. Section 20 provides for the ICO to approve model publication schemes which public authorities may adopt without further approval.

 The critical provision in this case was section 21(3) which provides that information is “not to be regarded as reasonably accessible to the applicant merely because it is available from the public authority on request, unless the information is made available in accordance with the authority’s publication scheme and any payment required is specified in, or determined in accordance with, the scheme”.

 The Tribunal interpreted this provision as meaning that if a scheme has the ICO’s approval and if the charge is specified in the scheme or ascertainable from it, the ICO and the Tribunal are required – rather than merely empowered – to regard the information as reasonably accessible.

 There was therefore no scope for the ICO or the Tribunal to judge the accessibility of the information by reference to the charge or any other factor. The ICO’s approval of the model scheme was conclusive. The Tribunal was persuaded that the ICO is indeed the appropriate authority to determine whether access is reasonable, and that it was hard to see why Parliament should enact a detailed system for approval of publication schemes and notification of charges “if compliance simply made the authority`s published information eligible for an assessment as to whether it was reasonably accessible”.

 It seems that the only remedy for an applicant who is deterred by charges is to draw the matter to the ICO’s attention. The ICO is empowered to revoke his approval on notice and, as the Tribunal noted, might take such a step if there was evidence of charges deterring information requests.

 Charles Bourne