Reviews of sites relating to freedom of information

The world wide web is perhaps the spiritual home of freedom of information. Some would argue that access to information is the very raison d’être of the web (credit card fraud and online pharmacy sales aside). Certainly many public bodies make wide use of the internet in order to fulfil their obligations under freedom of information legislation.

Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO)

Richard Thomas is the UK’s Information Commissioner, and this is his office’s website. The ICO is the supervisory authority not just for freedom of information, but also data protection, Privacy and Electronic Communication Regulations and Environmental Information Regulations. From a solicitor’s point of view, the “Tools & Resources” section is the very best place to begin reading about freedom of information. The documents library is well stocked and includes a number of useful documents, with a selection suitable for both the beginner (e.g. the 10 top tips leaflet) and the seasoned practitioner (e.g. the text of decision notices issued).

If you are representing a client who is aggrieved by a public body’s refusal to release information, the website also provides a guide to making a complaint, proforma complaints forms and useful guidance as to the Commissioner’s role and decision making powers. It may also be useful to subscribe to the quarterly e-newsletter, which provides updates on the subjects of interest to you every three months.

All of this is wrapped in what is now a very attractive and colourful website. For a site which contains this volume and quality of information it is also surprisingly easy to navigate.

Scottish Information Commissioner

Kevin Dunion is the Scottish Information Commissioner and performs a similar function to his UK counterpart in relation to the Scottish freedom of information legislation and Environmental Information Regulations. The website is clear, concise and in plain English, which is as all public information should be.

While it is certainly less vibrant than the ICO’s site, it does not suffer for that. It also has one of the more entertaining URLs in the public sector. It sets out in brief the legislation together with more in-depth treatments where this is warranted. In particular, the series of briefings on the exemptions to and key concepts of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 are both easy to understand and comprehensive, citing their sources and providing full footnotes. The briefings are helpfully provided in both HMTL and PDF.

One of the most interesting parts of the website is the decisions of the Commissioner on appeals of refusals to allow access to information. At the time of writing, there were almost 400 such decisions on the website. These can be accessed by date of decision, identity of authority, section of the Act etc. It also lists the 11 cases which are under further appeal to the Court of Session.

Those working for public authorities (and those questioning those who do) may find the compliance checklists helpful, and there are step by step guides both to making an FoI request and appealing to the Commissioner – together with the ubiquitous frequently asked questions page.

Open Secrets

Open Secrets is the BBC’s freedom of information blog, which has been running for just over a year now. The BBC is in an interesting position as far as freedom of information is concerned, as it is one of the bodies to which the legislation applies, but as a journalistic organisation is also one of the primary users of the Acts to access information for stories. If you doubted the importance of the Freedom of Information Act, then note some of the scoops obtained by the BBC through its use: everything from the UK selling plutonium to Israel under Harold Wilson to the policing costs for the latest instalment of Celebrity Big Brother.

As you might imagine, the blog takes a fairly sceptical tone towards various attempts by public bodies (Parliament included) to wriggle out of their duties, while toeing the line when the BBC itself seeks to have someone categorised as a “vexatious applicant”. It is however a really useful way to keep up to date with this topic as news breaks. Being a blog, one of the more useful aspects is the comments from interested members of the public, which often contain helpful pointers and links.

Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland

This is a small part of the CFOI’s website, specifically concentrating on the Scots law. It is not updated very often and has broken links dating back to 2003, so it’s not the best website in this field, but worth a (brief) look for a Scottish perspective.

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