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The Freedom of Information Act – making it work for you

by Josef Kafka

The Freedom of Information (FOI) Act gave the public rights to access official information, and to request any recorded information that public bodies such as councils or government departments hold on them. Knowing your rights and how to go about requesting information can save you time if you are planning to approach an organisation for information.

The Act can be used to access a range of information that organisations rarely publicise. Corporate information, details about council finances and planning applications can be requested. Many organisations hold large amounts of information about individuals. We can help explain what information organisations are entitled to keep and what they have to share with you. Our document verification service can also check the veracity of documents and information that organisations hold on you.

Legal requirements

To make an FOI request you must contact the relevant organisation in writing giving your real name and a postal or email address for a reply. You do not have to explain why you want the information or directly mention the FOI Act.

Getting a response

The commitment to meeting with FOI requests can vary greatly amongst different departments and organisations. Check on the website of a council or government department to see if there is a particular person or address to direct your request to. Keep a note of dates when you send requests and quote these dates with any follow up enquiry.

Keep your request reasonable. The Act allows authorities to refuse requests that will incur excessive costs in providing the information or that are plainly unreasonable. You also need to make a request clear and focused so that the person responsible for providing the information is actually able to meet your requirements. Sending ‘catch all’ requests for every piece of information on a subject are likely to be refused, as are trivial or time-wasting requests. Try and provide names of documents, dates of meetings etc , to assist the authority in providing the information you want. Make it clear whether you want the information provided electronically or in paper format.

Steps to avoid

Don’t use abusive threatening or abusive language in a request even if you are unhappy with the organisation you are contacting. Keep your request separate from other complaints to ensure that the request isn’t missed or ‘overlooked’. Avoid making requests simply to score points against an organisation that you are in dispute with or using the FOI Act to try and make personal attacks against an individual.

Data Protection

On the other side of the coin, data protection legislation is in place requiring organisations to keep personal information secure.

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