Tribunal rejects Whitehall approach to ‘meta-requests’

The Information Tribunal has rejected a Home Office and Ministry of Justice appeal on the issue of whether FOI requests about other requests (known as ‘meta-requests’ in Whitehall) can be refused as a whole under s.36 of the FOI Act. The appeal related to a request by Matthew Davis of John Connor Press Associates for internal communications within government departments in relation to FOI requests made by himself or his company. The Tribunal decision notes that Mr Davis believed requests from his company were being treated differently to other members of the public.

In evidence, the Home Office stated “”meta-requests” such as the one in this case are a good example of an arguably permissible, but irresponsible use of the Act.” However, the Tribunal found that there is no basis in the FOI Act for treating meta-requests as a special category.

“Although we accept that the Appellants are not asking us to treat s.36 as if it can be applied as an absolute exemption in the context of meta-requests, we do find that the Appellants’ approach is to invite us to treat meta-requests as a special category of requests. We agree with Ms Proops [counsel for the ICO] that there is no basis under FOIA for us to do that and that there is no separate class of request, which has been called the ‘meta-request’ in this case. We consider that Parliament intended that meta-requests should be dealt with in the same way as any other requests otherwise Parliament would have provided for this, which in our view they have not done so.”

“We have considered all the public interest factors in the circumstances of the way s.36 exemption has been applied in this case and find that the IC has not erred in deciding that the public interest in maintaining the exemption in s.36 does not outweigh the public interest in disclosure of the information requested as a whole. We have given strong weight to the public interest in knowing that public authorities deal with FOI requests properly and lawfully and do not discriminate against requesters or between requesters…It is vital to be seen to show that the fundamental compliance processes of the Act are being observed.”

“We would observe that the Tribunal can appreciate the particular concerns that some meta-requests could pose for public authorities. However as Ms Proops indicates FOIA provides a number of mechanisms for dealing with such concerns should they arise…Public authorities need to appreciate that if the exemptions under ss.9, 12 and 14 cannot be claimed then it will be necessary to review the request in detail to decide whether any Part II exemptions can be claimed.”

The Tribunal also found that it was not prepared to allow the late claiming of other exemptions in this case, except where s.40(2) had been claimed.

Home Office and Ministry of Justice v IC EA/2008/0062

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