Saturday, 27 August 2011

Now Nottingham City Homes Gets It in the Freedom of Info Neck

A rather encouraging decision from the Information Rights Tribunal (the body to which you appeal if you are unhappy with a decision by the Information Commissioner) has come to my notice. It concerns Nottingham City Homes who, as I'm sure you all know, serves as the housing wing of Nottm City Council.

There are a couple of interesting aspects to this case. The applicant had asked for information about repair and improvement spend on two other properties in his block because he apparently suspected that was being denied repairs when others were being provided with them. It was initially claimed by NCH that such information was personal data because it concerned personal details of tenants. However, this was dismissed on the basis that there had been a number of different tenants at the property and so the information, if provided, wouldn't be necessarily linked to any one tenant.

The second interesting point was that the Information Commissioner found that the original request was 'vexatious', a fate that has befallen one of my own requests.

One of the reasons for this that was accepted by the Information Commissioner was that the applicant had used 'threatening and intimidating' language in his correspondence. The Tribunal prefers to describe it as 'intemperate' and says that -

"...experienced members of staff receiving such a letter would be unlikely to significantly concerned by its contents..."

In other words, get a bleedin' grip. It is quite offensive how large public authorities turn into fragile drama queens alleging 'harassment' when people understandably get upset and complain. It's encouraging that the Tribunal have a sense of proportion on this.

But perhaps the most important issue here is the Tribunal's disapproval of the way that the background to the dispute was taken into account when deciding the 'vexatious' issue.

Some background. It is an accepted principle that it must be the request for information itself that is vexatious, not the requester. On the other hand, caselaw has long accepted that the context of a request can and should be taken into account when deciding the vexatious issue.

Now there is clearly a very fine line between the two and you might argue that the two are contradictory. It can and does mean that campaigners can easily get caught up in the 'vexatious' quagmire.

Happily, this particular Tribunal has moved things a bit more favour of requesters (prior to this no appeals on vexatious requests had been accepted by the Information Tribunal) and said -

"The Tribunal is satisfied that in its response to the request for disclosure of information [NCH] has focused too much on the history of its relations with the Appellant and has not considered the request on its merits.'

Quite right too.

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