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FOI appeals process should be streamlined, says committee of MPs

A committee of MPs has backed calls to streamline the appeals process in freedom of information (FOI) cases.23 Jun 2016

The House of Commons Justice Committee said it sees "no reason to disagree" with a recommendation made by the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information earlier this year to scrap the right of information requesters and public bodies to appeal decisions of the information commissioner (IC) in disputes over rights to access information held by public bodies under FOI laws.

The Committee outlined its view in a recent report into courts and tribunal fees (51-page / 719KB PDF).

Under FOI laws in the UK anyone can make a written request for information to a public authority and expect a response within 20 working days. The public authority is obliged to meet that request unless exemptions apply or unless meeting it will be too costly or difficult or they deem the request to be vexatious.

If people are refused access to information by a public body then they can raise an appeal against that decision with the information commissioner. At the moment decisions taken on appeal by the information commissioner can be further appealed by either the requester or public authority concerned to an information rights tribunal (First-tier Tribunal).

Appeals in FOI cases can go beyond the First-tier Tribunal to an Upper Tribunal, the Court of Appeal and ultimately the UK Supreme Court where they concern points of law.

In March, however, the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information said that the First-tier Tribunal appeal "too closely duplicates the full-merits assessment" carried out by the information commissioner and recommended that the First-tier Tribunal appeal stage be "removed" from the appeals process.

In its report for the UK government, which is still considering the recommendation, the Commission said it was "concerned that the benefit of the First-tier Tribunal stage is limited compared to the additional delay, costs and burden that it introduces into the system".

"The vast majority of appeals (87% in 2014) against the IC’s decisions are brought by requestors, and 79% of these were dismissed or withdrawn," the Commission said. "In our view considerable resources and judicial time are being taken up by unmeritorious appeals. We are also concerned that having two independent bodies conducting a full-merits review creates additional uncertainty for public authorities and for requestors. We consider that removing the right of appeal to the First-tier Tribunal would serve to enhance and strengthen the role of the IC, who would be the final arbiter of appeals on the substance of requests."

"Where someone remained dissatisfied with the IC’s decision, an appeal would still lie to the Upper Tribunal on a point of law (and onwards to the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court)," it said.