Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Disclosure of data under Freedom of Information Act

In a highly controversial judgement, the University of Belfast has been ordered to hand over to an enquirer 40 years worth of data on tree rings.

This may seem to have little relevance to schools and colleges, particularly as the data was asked for under the Environmental Information Act rather than the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. However, it does very sharply delineate the extent to which the disclosure of information is presumed to be automatic unless there are extremely good reasons against it. The university attempted to resist on grounds of cost. This was rejected almost contemptuously as the data was held electronically. It then argued that it might be of commercial value to the university. This was also rejected.

The case may go further, but unless material is given to the school or college on a basis of confidentiality or disclosing it would breach the Data Protection Act, it is best to assume when gathering information, that disclosure will always be granted under FOI.

A series of requests that are made apparently only to cause difficulty or to harass staff may be considered vexatious, and institutions are entitled to refuse to provide information to vexatious enquiries. However, there is a difference between an enquiry that is awkward or inconvenient and one that is vexatious.

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