Crafting effective freedom of information requests

Be polite and uncritical and frame your request precisely, advises employment solicitor Alison Smullen

Alison Smullen
Alison Smullen
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 gives the public the right to request and receive any recorded, non-personal information held by public authorities. Used effectively, it can be a powerful weapon for developing charity campaigns and allowing you to discover how tender decisions were arrived at. It also enables to you ascertain how particular policies were formulated.  

It's important to use it properly. If you use it ineffectively, you might find that the information you receive lacks quality or quantity. There is a chance that it will be rejected or that the authority responds slowly.

Tips for getting the most from your FOI request

Your request must be submitted in writing (email format is acceptable). State your full name, specify where to send the information and describe the information sought. It need not state why you want the information.

Your request should also be polite and devoid of criticisms of the authority that might encourage it to delay or avoid disclosure.

1. Quantity and quality

The broader and more ambiguous the request, the more inadequate the response is likely to be. Consider carefully, therefore, what specific information you want – then ask for it. Make reference to a particular time period if possible. 

For example, a poor request would be: "Provide all information relating to your recent tender process."

However, a good request would be: "Please supply copies of the bids submitted for the tender to run the city’s homeless outreach in 2014, minutes of any meetings at which the borough council discussed those bids and details of the borough council’s contract with the successful bidder."

2. Rejection

Consider what exemptions might be relied upon to withhold the information sought, then draft your request accordingly.  Some commonly cited exemptions are found at sections 21, 40, 41 and 43 of the FOIA.

Section 21 is cited where the information is already reasonably accessible to the requestor. If you cannot find the information that you want when perusing the authority’s publications or guide to information, submit an FOIA request. In the request ask that the authority, in the event that it relies upon section 21, states where you can access the information.        

Section 40 is cited to prevent disclosing information about identifiable living individuals where disclosure would serve no necessary legitimate public interest or would be disproportionately unfair to the identifiable individuals. In the second example above, the bids and minutes are likely to name particular individuals and might therefore be withheld under section 40. To prevent the documents from being withheld, your request should state that any documents containing exempt information should be disclosed with that information redacted.  

Section 41 relates to information provided in confidence and might be applicable to the contract in the second example above. If the contract simply records the parties’ mutual obligations, it is unlikely to be confidential and should therefore be disclosed. If it includes technical information, for example, this is likely to be confidential or a trade secret and may be withheld under sections 41 and 43 respectively. As stated above, to prevent the entire contract being withheld, request that any exempt information be redacted.

3. Delays

Public authorities have 20 working days to comply with a request. If it seeks further clarification or a fee is charged, the time for compliance does not start until the clarification and/or fee is received. To prevent delays, frame your request clearly and pay promptly. In order to reduce any fees, request that the information be emailed to you and that a comprehensive breakdown of the fee, if any, be provided by a particular date. 

Before making an FOI request, consider whether such a request is necessary. If it is, frame your request clearly and politely and anticipate any relevant exemptions.

Alison Smullen is an employment solicitor at Hill Dickinson

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