How to deal with an FOI request
This guidance gives detailed advice to public authorities on how to process requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act
- Is this a request under the Freedom of Information Act?
- Is the request clear and specific?
- Who holds the information?
- Is the information 'held' for the purposes of the Act?
- How much work is required to identify and collate the information?
- Is it a vexatious or repeated request?
- Do I need to consult with others before making a decision on the request?
- Can I release the information?
- How should the information be made available?
- How long do I have to respond?
- What should I tell the person requesting the information?
Freedom of information requests must be in writing, give the name and a return email or postal address of the person requesting the information, and describe the information that is being requested.
You should make a preliminary assessment whether the request appears to fall under:
There are different rules and procedures for requests for information under the Data Protection Act and Environmental Information Regulations.
You should also consider if the request is a question that should be handled as routine correspondence, or is for information contained in your authority's publication scheme.
- What constitutes a freedom of information request?
- Procedural guidance: Is this a request under the Freedom of Information Act?
- Publication schemes
If the request is unclear or vague, you are obliged to provide reasonable assistance to the person who made the request.
This means more than simply telling them that their request is not specific enough. You should take reasonable steps to provide assistance to the requester. The aim should be to assist the requester to refine their request so that it becomes specific enough for you to identify the information they want. Often a simple telephone call with a requester may resolve any ambiguity about the information they are seeking.
If you do not hold the information that has been requested, but you believe it is held by another public authority, you should consider the best way to help the person requesting the information. In most cases this will mean contacting the requester and supplying the contact details of the public authority in question.
In certain circumstances it may be more appropriate to transfer the request to the other public authority and inform the requester you have done so.
You must first check with the other authority before doing so, as the other authority may not be obliged to confirm or deny that it holds the information, and the act of the transfer is likely to be interpreted by the requester as an implicit acknowledgement that the information is held.
Requests should be transferred promptly. The 20 working day time-limit begins when the request is received by the public authority to which it is transferred.
A person may request any information 'held' in any recorded form by a public authority (or held by another on behalf of a public authority).
If the requester is asking for your opinion on an issue or asking you to create information that is not already held, this is not a Freedom of Information Act request.
If information is held on behalf of someone else, you are not required to consider it when dealing with a freedom of information request.
If the request is for a large amount of information, you should consider if complying with the request would exceed the 'appropriate limit' of £600 for central government, Parliament and the armed forces or £450 for other public authorities under the fees regulations.
If complying with a request would exceed the appropriate limit, you can refuse the request. However, you should help the requester to try to narrow or refine the request.
You can also consider charging. If complying with the request would exceed the appropriate limit (so you do not have a duty to provide the information) you can still charge for, for example, the costs of photocopying, printing and posting.
You are not obliged to comply with a request if:
- it is vexatious (there are a number of factors to consider - see the procedural guidance)
- it is a repeated request, which is identical or substantially similar to a previous request from that person (unless a reasonable amount of time has elapsed since the first request was complied with)
Where the information requested has been obtained from or impacts on a third party you should obtain their views before making a decision about providing it. Consultation should be completed in time to respond within 20 working days.
This depends on whether an exemption in the Freedom of Information Act applies, for example if:
- any of the information is personal information
- the information is now, or will soon be publicly available
- any of the other exemptions in the Act apply - for example, for reasons relating to defence, the economy or the effective conduct of public affairs
Some of these exemptions are absolute exemptions. This means that if information is covered by the exemption in question you are not required to release it (and, in some cases, are not permitted to release it).
Other exemptions are subject to the public interest test. If the information in question falls under such an exemption, you must consider whether the public interest factors in favour of withholding the information outweigh those in favour of release. If they do not, you must release the information; if they do, you must release it.
It might be helpful to look at the working assumptions, which set out how requests for some types of information should be treated - for example, policy advice, legal advice and information relating to procurement.
The right of access is to information, not documents. However, if you receive a request for the information to be made available in a particular way (for instance, as a copy of a document), you must comply with this insofar as it is reasonably practical to do so. If you cannot supply it in the manner requested, you should explain why.
If you are withholding information, see the advice on 'how to make the information available'.
You must advise the requester of the decision on the request promptly and, in any case, no later than 20 working days after the request is received.
If you are carrying out a public interest test and require more time to complete the test, you must advise the requester of this, indicating the exemption that applies and the date by which they can expect to receive a full response. This should be as soon as possible and should generally avoid exceeding an extension of 20 working days.
If disbursements are charged for the information, the 20-day period is put on hold while you are waiting for the fee to be paid.
You must advise the requester whether the request is to be granted and, if it is, in what manner and for what charge (if any).
If any of the information is withheld under one or more of the exemptions, you must advise the requester of:
- the section or sections of the Freedom of Information Act it is being withheld under
- the information to which the exemption applies
- why it applies
- if applicable, why the public interest test favours withholding
In some instances, advising that information is being withheld may itself be disclosing information that would be exempt. In this situation, it may be necessary to neither confirm nor deny whether the information is held.
If you are withholding information, you must also advise the requester of their right to seek an internal review and to complain to the Information Commissioner.
For examples of responses, see the standard responses, which also cover extending the time period for responding due to the need to consider the public interest test and transferring a request.