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Guest Blog: Requester Blind - Principles and Practicalities

As FOI officers, we all want to do the right thing. We all have stories of how FOIs have led to changes in the approach public bodies have taken, and subsequent service improvements. Transparency is valuable. Sharing provides the opportunity to evaluate and scrutinise information in different ways, both internally and externally. This improves our understanding and helps us identify and make improvements.

One of the foundations of FOI is the Requester Blind principle which is there to ensure that the answer to a request should always be the same, regardless of who asks it and what their motives are. The ICO guidance on the Requester Blind principle is pretty clear: “Authorities should view disclosure as a release of information into the public domain. This means that they must consider the consequences of disclosure to the world at large, and not just the impact of providing the material to the requester.”

But, it just isn’t that simple is it? Requester Blind isn’t quite the constant that many people think. For a start the request has to come from a real person and, if the organisation has reason to believe that the name the requester gives isn’t their real name, then the guidance is to refuse the request.

There are a number of occasions when knowing the name of the requester is essential to providing the right response to a request. For example, when narrowing down a request, understanding who they are and why they want the information (they don’t need to reveal why if they don’t want to) can help to get them the right information that’s most useful to them. There’s also the need to take personal circumstances into account when considering whether information is ‘accessible via other means’. The information needs to be “reasonably accessible”, and that varies depending on the individual, their access to technology and their accessibility requirements.

Also, has the requester made multiple FOI requests on the same or a similar theme? Should these requests be considered as one, and would this then mean that preparing the response would exceed the “appropriate limit” of cost? Is the request part of a campaign? Is this a repeat request by the same requester?

Perhaps one of the trickiest areas is considering whether a request is vexatious, and where both motives and requester identity can be taken into account. But once these, and a host of other factors, have been considered, when is it reasonable or right to refuse a request?

In the case of vexatious requests, once a request or series of requests has been classed as vexatious, are there any occasions where the same requester can submit a request on a similar theme and for it not to be vexatious? When is a request benign and when is sharing the information, regardless of who has requested it, in the public interest?

These are just some of the areas within Requester Blind that make navigating the principle much more difficult. In our roles, we are frequently required to make judgement calls on issues such as these. When the margins are narrow, what can we use to help us make sensible, evidence based decisions? In order to make these decisions, we need to look at how decisions are applied using the practical, real-world examples of relevant past cases, not just the ones that reach tribunal stage, but the ones that most of us come into contact with every day.

In our webinar ‘Requester Blind - Principle and Practice’, we’ll be discussing some of these issues and examining relevant cases of when it is important to share requester identity, and how this can be used positively. We’ll also examine some of the other issues through the lens of practical application with recent, real, and relevant case examples. This will include identifying when it’s important to take requester and request history into account, vexatious requests, and the intersection with data protection law.

Lynn Wyeth

Head of Information Governance and DPO, Leicester City Council

Requester Blind - Principle and Practice is the first part of the eCase FOIQ webinar series taking place on Tuesday 14th September and chaired by Lynn Wyeth, Head of Information Governance and FOI at Leicester City Council. Lynn will be joined by Lauri Almond, Information Governance Manager at Essex County Council.

This session is free to attend to all public sector practitioners, Register Today

For more information on the other webinars in our FOIQ series, please visit our FOI and Data Protection Webinar page

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