It is an oft-repeated phrase that the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) provides a right of access to information but not documents. A recent Court of Appeal decision shows that it is not that straightforward an issue.
Section 1 contains the general right of access and uses the term “request for information.” But what exactly is “information”? Section 84 defines it as “information recorded in any form.” This includes information held on paper, computer, video, audiotapes as well as that contained in manuscript notes. No mention is made of access to the actual documents containing the information. However this does not mean that documents cannot be requested.
A request for a document will generally be a valid request for all of the information contained within that document (including visual format, design, layout etc). In considering whether the public authority has complied with the request, the question is whether all of the information recorded in the document has been provided. It will not be sufficient to rephrase the document or provide an outline or summary of its contents unless the applicant has specifically expressed a preference for a digest or summary under section 11(1)(c).
This matter has now been put beyond doubt by a Court of Appeal decision this week. Judges dismissed an appeal by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), the body that oversees MPs’ expenses claims, from a decision of the Upper Tribunal requiring it to release copies of MPs’ invoices and receipts. This is the latest in a serious of appeals by IPSA in an attempt to overturn the original decision of the Information Commissioner.
In April 2013 the First Tier Tribunal (Information Rights), ruled that images of MPs’ expense claim receipts were information to which the FOI applied (IPSA v Information Commissioner (EA/2012/0242)). The background to the request was that, following the MPs’ expenses scandal, the then newly-formed IPSA, decided that it would not routinely publish images of the receipts submitted to IPSA by MPs in support of their expenses claims. Only text transcribed from the submitted receipts would be published.
A journalist made an FOI request for the actual receipts submitted by a number of MPs. The question arose as to whether images of those receipts held by IPSA contained “information” within the meaning of section 1 of FOI, which was not captured by the transcription process favoured by IPSA. The Tribunal concluded that the definition of information (in this case) included logos, letterheads, handwriting, manuscript comments, and even the layout and style of the requested documents. These were not disclosed to the requestor as a result of providing a transcription, rather than a copy, of the relevant receipts.
Last year the Upper Tribunal’s Judge Williams (in Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority v IC & Leapman  UKUT 33 (AAC)) dismissed the appeal by IPSA. At Paragraph 22 of the judgement he said:
“It is to me also trite to note that the wording on a typical receipt or invoice is only part of what a recipient sees when looking at it. Typically there will be verbal and numerical content to be read and understood, but there will also be visual content to be seen, rather than read, but which may also require to be understood for the recipient to have appreciated the whole of the experience, if I may term it that, communicated by the receipt or invoice.”
In the judge’s view information is more than just the words and figures on a piece of paper. Sometimes the nature of the request will mean that the only way to convey all the information on a document is to disclose the original or at least a copy. He gave the example of Land Registry plans, drawings and photographic evidence of a particular building.
In coming to his decision the judge took note of the Scottish Court of Session decision in Glasgow CC v SIC  CSIH 73 under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FOISA). As a general point of principle, the Commissioner and the Tribunal is not bound by Court of Session decisions on FOISA, although they may be considered persuasive where the terms of FOISA mirror the terms of FOI. In the Scottish case the applicant specifically wanted the public authority to provide copies of the documents, although he acknowledged that the same information was available elsewhere. The Court confirmed that FOISA entitles requesters to the information within a document, rather than a copy of the document itself. To the extent that this request was specifically for copies of the documents over and above the information they contained, it was invalid. The Court rejected an argument that the copy documents were “information” distinct from the information contained within them.
Paragraph 45 of the Court of Session judgment states:
“Where the request does not describe the information requested… but refers to a document which may contain the relevant information, it may nonetheless be reasonably clear in the circumstances that it is the information recorded in the document that is relevant.”
However paragraph 48 should be noted:
“The difference between the original and a copy… does not consist in any difference between the information recorded in each document: that information, if the copy is true and accurate, will be identical.” (my emphasis)
To quote one of our FOI trainers (Philip Bradshaw), much will also in practice depend on the wording of the request. Contrast “How much did you spend on pencils?” with “Can I have a copy of your pencil invoices”. You can clearly provide in permanent form all the recorded information within scope of the first request without copies, but not perhaps for the second.
In the IPSA case, the judge ruled that transcriptions of the requested receipts would not be “true and accurate”, as they would not contain all the same information as on the originals e.g. logos, style, layout etc.
This is an interesting decision especially for those public authorities who often insist, when refusing to supply actual documents (such as minutes of meetings) that FOI is about access to information not documents. Sometimes the requestor is interested in the document, which contains the requested information, as it will give a further insight into its background and the thoughts/observations of the producers/subjects of the document.
IPSA has been given time to consider taking the case to the Supreme Court.
Ibrahim Hasan will be discussing this and other recent FOI decisions in the FOI Update workshops which are delivered in one hour online sessions as well as full day face to face sessions.