Some FOIA ‘mantras’ frustrate requesters, such as judging matters as at the time of the request/refusal, regardless of subsequent events. Others tend to frustrate public authorities, such as ‘motive blindness’. A recent Tribunal discusses and illustrates both principles – in the context of the distress (including a danger to mental health) likely to arise from disclosure.
The background is that a certain pupil referral unit (PRU) in County Durham was the subject of complaints; 13 of its 60 staff had been suspended. An independent investigation team reported in November 2012. Later in that same month, the Council received a FOIA request for a copy of the investigators’ report. At that time, disciplinary proceedings were pending against each of the suspended members of staff. Those proceedings were to be conducted on a confidetial basis.
The Council refused the request, relying on section 31 (prejudice to conduct of function for purpose of ascertaining any improper conduct), section 40 (personal data) and 38 (health and safety). The ICO agreed, and so has the Tribunal, dismissing the requester’s appeal in Hepple v IC and Durham County Council (EA/2013/0168).
The Tribunal confirmed that, notwithstanding the appellant’s practical arguments to the contrary, it had to judge matters as they stood at the time of the Council’s refusal of the request (paras 4-7).
Section 31 was engaged: “We are satisfied, having read the Report in full, that disclosure in full would have given rise to a perception of unfairness and pre-judgement that would have prejudiced the disciplinary proceedings. Those deciding the complaint might have avoided being prejudiced but the perception of a disinterested third party would have been that the staff member’s right to a fair hearing had been undermined, particularly if publication had attracted media comment” (para 14). The public interest favoured maintaining the exemption.
Reliance on section 40(2) was upheld: the unwarranted interference to the data subjects prevailed over public interest arguments. The comparative balance may have shifted slightly since the date of the refusal, but that was not the relevant time for the purposes of the appeal.
Reliance on section 38 was also upheld. This exemption for health and safety (here, danger to mental health) seldom surfaces in FOIA caselaw. Here it was upheld, largely because the requester himself had sent certain text messages (for which he was later apologetic) to some of the individuals involved. The Tribunal “drew the clear impression that the texts had been transmitted with the purpose of menacing those whose addresses the Appellant had acquired” (para 37).
Those text messages were sent after the refusal of the request, but the Tribunal was satisfied that they evidenced a state of mind likely to have existed at the relevant time. As to ‘motive blindness’, the Tribunal said that “assessing an information request on this “motive blind” basis ought not to prevent us from considering the potential risk to safety posed by the requester him/herself”.
‘Motive blindness’ may be something of a mantra in FOIA cases, but – as with vexatious request cases – it is a principle which should be applied with appropriate nuance.
Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin