Info boss backs refusal to answer vexatious request

| 16/06/2011

(CNS): The information commissioner has ruled that the legal department was within the law when it refused to answer a number of requests from a single freedom of information applicant because they were believed to be vexatious. In her twelfth ruling Jennifer Dilbert found that the requests were obsessive but she did not find that individually the requests were unreasonable.  Instead she pointed to the volume and frequency of the requests that led her to uphold the decision by the government department. “Had the requests been made one at a time, over a longer period of time, I would not expect the Portfolio of Legal Affairs to find them vexatious” stated the commissioner.

Given the circumstances Dilbert said she understood how staff could have been distressed by the pattern of the requests and how the requests might cause disruption or annoyance, but she said she was not convinced that they were designed to do so. 

The FOI Law excuses a public authority from processing FOI requests which are vexatious, or where responding would unreasonably divert resources. 

In this matter Legal Affairs, refused to respond to the requests as they considered them vexatious as per section 9(a) of the Freedom of Information Law, 2007 (FOI Law). Two separate sets ofrequests were under review during the hearing.  The first, made by the applicant to the Portfolio on 30 January 2011, contained 6 separate questions and the second, made on 6 February 2011, asked another 5.  The questions themselves were for mainly statistical information.

In their submission, the Portfolio argued that the volume, length and frequency of the requests could fairly be characterized as “obsessive or manifestly unreasonable”.  They listed 23 separate FOI requests, containing more than 100 questions over the 8 month period prior to 6 February 2011. 

The applicant did not refute the number of requests made, and pointed to a number of other requests that the Portfolio had responded to – many of which involved much greater difficulty and detail than those currently being considered.  The Applicant submitted that “the Legal Department does not have a fixed and/or balanced method and/or judgment and/or standard to assess FOI requests.”

Following guidelines from the UK in regard to vexatious requests Dilbert considered if the requests were obsessive, harassing, imposed a significant burden, designed to disrupt or annoy or lacked serious purpose or value.  The commissioner found that the requests were obsessive and upheld the portfolio’s decision “I find that there is a continuing pattern of behaviour on the part of the applicant that points to these requests being obsessive,” she added.

Dilbert said that in order for FOI to succeed, there must be support from all sides. “Applicants should use the FOI responsibly. To abuse the rights given under the Law brings the Law into disrepute, and undermines the operation of the Law for the benefit of others,” the commissioner added.
 
In addition, Dilbert also revealed that procedurally, the portfolio handled the requests correctly and the Commissioner said she was pleased with the practical operation of the Law.  “The public is able to access government records that were previously not disclosed and government is becoming more aware of the importance of transparency and accountability.  An open government will inevitably lead to an informed and empowered people – which will make Cayman a better place for everyone.”


A full version of the decision is posted below

Category: FOI

Comments (4)

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Good decision

  2. Dennie Warren Jr. says:

    I find the 'vexatious clause,' well vexatious, because it is an anti-FOI provision and should be repealed.

  3. Anonymous says:

    A sad precedent.

    The 'vexatious' argument is frequently used in the UK (particularly by the police) to fend off people who are just being persistent in their desire to get at the truth.

    I am particulary concerned by, "Dilbert said she understood how staff could have been distressed by the pattern of the requests and how the requests might cause disruption or annoyance." What does she mean? Did it disrupt their 9-5 teabreaks and actually threaten to make them do some work?

    Civil Servants have to put with this kind of stuff, that's what they get paid for and if they don't like it they should go work somewhere else.

    Is the bottom line of this ruling that if one individual makes multiple requests over an eight-month period that can be deemed to be vexatious but if 20, 30, 40 or even 50 individuals make similar requests all on the same day that is OK? Sorry Jennifer but you seems to have dropped the ball on this one and it will come back and bite you.

  4. Anonymous says:

    While I have faith in the commissioner I hope these requests which by admission were legitimate were not merely considered vexatious as they were made by the same person.