InfoLaw Update - Multiple requests from the same requestor were not vexatious
Burnetts' information law solicitor Natalie Ruane examines a case concering the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
In a case brought by Mr Chadha against the decision of the Information Commissioner the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights) has decided that an NHS trust was not entitled to refuse an information request as vexatious under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA), where the trust's own failure to provide advice and assistance was the cause of Mr Chadha’s repeated correspondence with them.
The requester was concerned about the levels of care for patients at Hillingdon Hospital. In a series of letters, the requester asked the trust for "information" about complaints against the hospital, which the trust initially wrongly interpreted as a request for the number of complaints. The Tribunal stated that the trust bore "substantial responsibility" for the amount of correspondence between the parties, providing "unhelpful and incomplete answers" and making unjustified assumptions about the information that was being requested. Instead, the trust should have asked what types of complaint the requester meant and given the requester advice and assistance on what information it could provide.
A letter asking the trust how it classified complaints was held not to be an information request, but instead an attempt to understand how to successfully set out his request. 11 letters in total from the requester during a six month period was not excessive in the circumstances.
The fact that the requester had made information requests on multiple issues did not indicate vexatiousness. It was held that this had arisen out of the way that the Trust had conducted itself, by signing off e-mail correspondence by title and not by name. This policy was judged as lacking transparency: it meant that the Mr Chadha had no way of telling whether the person who internally reviewed the FOIA decision had had prior involvement with the case.
The case is a reminder that public authorities must assist requesters to clarify information requests in a way that will get them the information they seek: tribunals will not be sympathetic to public authorities' obstructiveness or lack of transparency.
About the author
Natalie is a Partner and leads the Employment Law & HR team and specialises in education.
Published: Tuesday 4th November 2014
Categorised: Information Law