The watchdog reminded public authorities that they cannot merely rely on responding to FOI requests within 20 working days in order to demonstrate their compliance with the FOI Act.
Under UK FOI laws anyone of any nationality living anywhere in the world can make a written request for information to a designated public body. Public bodies are required to disclose the information sought unless at least one of a number of exemptions prohibiting disclosure applies or unless meeting the request is too costly or difficult. Public bodies can also decide not to provide information requested if they deem the request to be vexatious.
Individuals generally have a right to be issued with a response within 20 working days, however the FOI Act explains that it is the duty of public bodies to respond "promptly and in any event not later than the twentieth working day following the date of receipt".
In its guidance (18-page / 357KB PDF) the ICO said that the requirement to respond 'promptly' and the requirement to respond no later than 20 working days were to be considered as separate obligations.
It said that public bodies should be able to justify why it took them as long as 20 days to respond to requests in cases where they do not act more promptly than that "long stop" deadline.
"The obligation to respond promptly means that an authority should comply with a request as soon as is reasonably practicable," the ICO said in its new guidance. "Whilst this is linked to the obligation to respond within 20 working days, it should be treated as a separate requirement."
"An authority will therefore need to both respond promptly and within 20 working days in order to comply with [the FOI Act]. Authorities should regard the 20 working day limit as a ‘long stop’, in other words the latest possible date on which they may issue a response. It also follows that an authority which provides its response close to, or on, the final day of the 20 working day limit ought to be able to both account for, and justify, the length of time taken to comply with the request," it added.