Requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (“FOIA”) are a key legal tool which all those who care about animals and protecting them can make use of to further their objectives and inspire change. For example, they can be used to get hold of key statistics to support campaigns or legal action, and they can help identify where public authorities are failing to adequately protect animals.
Section 1 FOIA grants a general right of access to information held by public authorities. Public authorities are obliged to comply with these requests subject to certain specific exemptions including but not limited to personal data, information provided in confidence and the protection of commercial interests which they can rely on to withhold disclosure or make redactions to disclosed information.
Just because there is a general right of access to information held by public authorities does not mean public authorities will be fully transparent in response to requests for information they receive. If public authorities do attempt to rely on exemptions to withhold disclosure or make redactions, such reliance can be challenged - they do not always get it right!
The way that you present your request for information and your knowledge of your rights under the FOIA is key to getting the most out of the process.
Did you know that:
1. Most authorities have informational pages on their websites as to how an individual can submit a FOIA request to them?
Check to see if the public body you are targeting with your information request provides specific guidance on how to submit a request to them. If they do provide such guidance, you should make sure you follow it.
www.gov.uk advises that requestors include their name and contact postal and/or email address too.
2. Being clear and leaving little room for ambiguity in your request will increase your chances of success?
Be clear about the information that you want and in what form you want it. For example, once you have set out the subject matter of information you are requesting, use date ranges, locations and other applicable filter categories to narrow the data set to what you really need. The more specific the request, the easier it is for the authority to identify what you want and the more likely the authority is to provide a helpful response.
If you leave room for ambiguity, they are more likely to incorrectly identify the information you want or refuse to reply. If the public body estimates that it will be too costly and take up too much time to respond to a request (which is more likely to be the case with vague requests for information), they may refuse to provide any information.
3. It is important to have a genuine motive?
Authorities can refuse to comply with a request for information that they determine to be vexatious.
4. Your request must be replied to within 20 working days?
Public authorities are required to reply to requests for information promptly and in any event no later than 20 working days from the date they receive your request. If you do not receive a request within the time period, you can complain to the authority and eventually apply to the Information Commissioner’s Office if you do not get any/an appropriate response. Make sure you diarise the date the authority’s response is due so that you can take action promptly.
5. If you do not get the response you want, you have 40 working days to request an internal review?
If you disagree with the response to your request for information - for example, in cases where they have withheld disclosure or made a lot of redactions to key information - you can request an internal review. This essentially asks the authority to re-consider your request for information and allows you the opportunity to argue your case as to why you are entitled to this information, dealing with any reasons for refusal the authority has relied upon in their response. A request for an internal review must be made within 40 working days of the authority’s initial response to you. This is another key date to diarise to make sure that you do not miss your window to escalate matters. Authorities are not obliged to comply with a FOIA request which is "identical or substantially similar" to a previous FOIA request you have submitted and so it is important to request an internal review within the 40 working-day window because otherwise you may not have another opportunity to get the information you want.
If you are not satisfied with a response to a request for information and are not confident in how to proceed and want to make sure that you act as efficiently as possible, you can contact independent counsel. Independent counsel, typically a firm like Advocates for Animals, will deal with these requests for information and challenges to unsatisfactory responses regularly and will be able to advise on next steps and draft persuasive complaints on your behalf, including to the Information Commissioner’s Office or even the Tribunal should you not be provided with the information. They can also be involved from the start and draft the initial request for information for you if necessary, giving you the best chance of getting the information you are after.
If you are interested specifically in understanding how the right to submit requests for information may help you, please let us know.
This post is not legal advice and should not be relied on as such. If you require legal advice on animal protection laws please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.