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Freedom of Information requests... Perhaps the clue is in the name, “freedom of information” – not just referring to the ease with which someone can gain access to information held by public bodies, but also the manner in which such information is disseminated to the public. The news then that the Freedom of Information commission has decided not to introduce charges for requests for information is to be welcomed by all observers.

lawyerFor the sake of clarity, it should be noted that the Commission was solely reviewing the UK system, as opposed to the system that operates in Scotland for devolved matters under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002. However, many of the points raised are equally applicable to either system.

Freedom of Information requests have become a vital part of the way the public gain access to information and have proved important in revealing wrongdoing in public offices, such as the MPs’ expenses scandal. It was recognised in the Commission’s report that to introduce a charge for such a request could potentially prevent a large number of investigations, which would be in the public interest, from being undertaken. It was noted that this could be the case where parties were investigating across a number of different bodies or organisations. There is, of course, a counter argument that dealing with large numbers of information requests, and occasionally frivolous requests, places a financial and administratively onerous burden on bodies to deal with and that by introducing a small fee per request, the financial burden on bodies would be reduced. It was rightly concluded that, on balance, such a burden is justified by the general public interest in accountability and transparency.

From a selfish perspective, the system has also proved an exceptionally useful tool for lawyers from exposing the length of existence of a defect causing an accident to information about similar types of accidents previously occurring.  It has become a vital part of a Personal Injury lawyer’s arsenal when dealing with claims against public bodies. It is particularly useful for obtaining information that otherwise may not be disclosed by such a body. It can effectively be the determining factor in deciding whether a case can proceed or not, so it is certainly to be welcomed that the current procedure will remain in effect.

As the commission has recognised, the FOI process has “enhanced openness and transparency”, which is only to be encouraged. We only hope that such values are maintained over the course of the next few years to further encourage the use of freedom of information and not almost-freedom of information.

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