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Vexatious FOI requests were 'harassment' of transport authority

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has ruled in favour of a public authority which complained that it was the subject of so many Freedom of Information requests that the behaviour of the requester was vexatious.22 Feb 2007

The West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive (Centro) received 15 requests from one person under the Freedom of Information Act in just 11 months, between January and November 2005. It told the requester at that point that it would not answer any more queries. The requester complained to the ICO.

The requests related to Centro's financial relationships with four bus companies, and Centro provided information to the person making the request. After the 14th and 15th requests came in, though, it said that it had provided detailed information and would provide no more. Centro had also offered direct discussions with the person, which they turned down.

The requester's complaint to the ICO said that Centro had not acted in line with its obligations under the FOI Act, given that it is a public authority.

The ICO disagreed. It ruled that the 15th request would have imposed a significant and unreasonable burden on Centro. It also said that that request was tantamount to harassment of the authority and that it was manifestly unreasonable.

"This is the most recent of a number of decisions in which the ICO has upheld a public authority's use of the FOI Act's provisions on vexatious requests," said Graham Smith, deputy Commissioner at the ICO. "Rights to access official information should be exercised responsibly and the Act recognises that there are limits to compliance beyond which public authorities are not obliged to go."

The FOI Act says that there is a general right of access to information, but that it "does not oblige a public authority to comply with a request for information if the request is vexatious".

The ICO has previously produced a guide to vexatious requests and the exemption in the Act relating to them. "Even though it may not have been the explicit intention of the applicant to cause inconvenience or expense," said the guide, "if a reasonable person would conclude that the main effect of the request would be disproportionate inconvenience or expense, then it will be appropriate to treat the request as being vexatious."