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Freedom of Information

By: Louise Smith, barrister - Updated: 21 Sep 2012 | comments*Discuss
Information Freedom Request Data

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 introduced new rules about the rights of individuals to access information held by public authorities.

Information Covered By The Freedom Of Information Act

Anyone can make a request for information under the Freedom of Information Act. However, the Act only covers information held by public authorities - which include government departments, schools, doctors and the police. A request may be made in relation to any information, on any topic, which is believed to be held by the public authority.

Some types of information are dealt with under different rules or law. For example:

  • If the information relates to the individual making the request, the request should be made under the Data Protection Act instead, (see below);
  • Requests regarding environmental issues should be made under the Environmental Information Regulations;
  • Requests to the Land Registry about property or land in England and Wales are usually governed by the Land Registration Rules 2003.

How To Request Information

An individual who wishes a public authority to disclose information should make a request in writing to that organisation. The request should include the name and address of the individual, and a description of the information required. Requests may be made by email.

The description of the information should be as specific as possible. If the request is too vague or wide-ranging, it may be turned down by the public authority either because compliance would be too expensive or because it would involve too much work to comply with the request.

How Freedom Of Information Requests Are Handled

Requests under the Freedom of Information Act should be responded to within 20 working days. If the public authority needs more time to comply with the request they should write to the individual informing them why they need more time and stating when they will be able to comply with the request. Public authorities have a duty under the Act to assist those making requests for information. This could include discussing the request with the individual whilst the information is being gathered.

When a public authority replies to a request they must confirm whether or not they hold the information requested. If the information is to be withheld, the public authority must explain the grounds on which it is withheld and inform the individual of their rights of appeal against the refusal.

There is no charge to make a request under the Freedom of Information Act. However, public authorities may make a small charge to cover the expenses incurred in complying with the request – such as photocopying and postage. However, a request may be turned down if the public authority thinks that it will be too expensive for them to comply. If this is the case the public authority should inform the individual and may suggest that the request be made more specific.

Information Which Can Be Withheld

The Freedom of Information Act specifically states that there are some types of information which need not be disclosed pursuant to a request. The Act sets out 23 exemptions to the duty to disclose information. Different rules and considerations may apply to different types of information and to different types of public authority:
  • In some cases the right to withhold the information is absolute. In others the public authority may have to weigh up the public interest in withholding or disclosing the information. Generally it is presumed that there is a public interest in disclosure.
  • In some situations the public authority may be exempt from confirming whether or not they hold the information. This may particularly apply where disclosure would interfere with the administration of justice or harm national security.
  • Some types of information are exempt from disclosure because they can be accessed under other rules or procedures.
A request may be rejected if an individual makes repeated requests to a public authority for reasons that are considered to be vexatious. A public authority may turn down a request if it believes that the purpose of the request is to obstruct or interfere with its work rather than a genuine interest in the information requested.

Requests For Personal Information Under The Data Protection Act

If the information specifically relates to that individual, the request should be made under the Data Protection Act. Requests under this Act may be made to private organisations as well as public authorities. The organisation to which the request is made has up to 40 days to reply and may charge £10 to disclose the information.

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