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Johnson v. Information Commissioner and the Ministry of Justice (Previously the Department of Constitutional Affairs)

Case number:
EA/2006/0085
Country:
United Kingdom
Date of decision:
13 July 2007
Court / Arbiter:
Information Tribunal, reviewable by High Court ( First instance )


Decision:

Individuals may request information held by government agencies even when the requested information requires additional work to compile. However, if the cost of such additional work exceeds the limits prescribed by the Freedom of Information Act of 2000, the government agency has no obligation to comply with the request.


Keywords:
Costs / Fees
Judicial information (administrative information, appointments, career information, case-load statistics)
RTI law
Scope of information covered
Voluminous or complex request (including excessive resources required to search, retrieve)

Case details:

Facts

In 2005, Michael Johnson filed a request for information from the Ministry of Justice under Section 1 of the Freedom of Information Act of 2000, which creates a general right to request access recorded information held by public authorities. Johnson requested two pieces of information for each year from 2001-2004: (1) the number of claims allocated to individual Queen’s Bench (division of the High Court) Masters, and (2) the number of Strike Outs of claims made by individual Queen’s Bench Masters. The Ministry of Justice responded that it did not “hold” the information under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act of 2000, as it had never previously compiled the information and doing so would require many weeks’ time. Johnson appealed to the Information Commissioner, who also concluded that the Ministry of Justice did not hold the requested information and issued a Decision Notice to that effect. Johnson then filed a Notice of Appeal to the Information Tribunal, claiming he did not accept that the requested information would take as long to compile as the Ministry of Justice claimed.

Decision

First, the Tribunal concluded that the Ministry of Justice did “hold” the requested information for the purposes of the Act (para. 50). While the Act does not contain a definition of “hold,” the Tribunal emphasized language in the Act that focuses on the content of the information rather than the form in which the information is held (para. 42). Applying this understanding, the Tribunal distinguished between “building blocks” that would require the exercise of a high degree of skill in order to arrive at a set of information and “building blocks” that could produce the requested information through a relatively simple process by extracting and collating it from existing raw data held by the authority  (paras. 46-47). In the former case, a governmental agency might be said not to “hold” the information, whereas in the latter case it would. The Tribunal concluded that the present case fell squarely within the latter category.

However, the Tribunal concluded that the information exceeded the limitations defined by Section 12 of the Act (para. 64). Section 12 of the Freedom of Information Act of 2000 provides that requests for information need not be complied with if the cost of compliance would “exceed the appropriate limit,” which the Freedom of Information and Data Protection (Appropriate Limit and Fees) Regulations of 2004 elaborates upon by specifying the appropriate limit as £600 for government agencies such as the Ministry of Justice (paras. 53-55). Given the considerable number of files that would need to be manually assessed to produce the requested information, the Tribunal concluded that even an extremely rapid assessment would far exceed the appropriate limit prescribed by Section 12 of the Act and the explanatory Regulations (para. 60). The Article 12 limitations having been exceeded, the Ministry of Justice had no obligation to comply with Johnson’s request for information (paras. 64-65).

By rejecting the Ministry of Justice’s interpretation of “holding” information in favor of a broader one, the Tribunal allowed requests for more types of information than government agencies might have previously thought. However, the Tribunal circumscribed this allowance by stipulating that such requests must not exceed the Article 12 limitations.

Resources:

Judgment of the Court.