Freedom of Information
A FAQ guide to how the Freedom of Information Act 2000 applies to academies
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) was introduced to promote transparency and accountability across all areas of the public sector.
Academies are subject to FOIA and therefore have a legal duty to comply with a valid request for access to information they hold. Academies must provide advice and assistance to any requesting person regardless of whether that request specifically mentions a right under FOIA and whether or not the requesting person specifies the reason for wanting the information.
What is a valid FOI request?
The general duty to comply with a request under FOIA will apply whenever a request has been made:
- in writing (emails and faxes included);
- states the requesting person's name and correspondence address;
- describes the information requested in sufficient detail to make it both identifiable and locatable;
- the academy must hold the information (or someone holds it on behalf of the academy); and
- the information requested must not be covered by any other legislation (eg the Data Protection Act).
What time limits apply?
In the event that a valid request has been made, the academy must comply promptly and within either 20 working days following the date of receipt (excluding any day which is not a school day) or 60 working days following receipt, whichever occurs first.
When is an academy not required to comply with an FOI request?
Certain exceptions and limitation to FOI exist, such as where the cost of complying with the request exceeds £450 or the request is considered vexatious or repeated. Exemptions likely to apply to academies include (there are others which may be relevant to particular information or circumstance):
- the information is accessible by other means - for example it is published as part of the academy's publication scheme;
- the request covers personal information, e.g. belonging to the enquirer, and disclosure is subject to the Data Protection Act; and
- the information is a trade secret or would be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of any person or body (including the academy).
What is the 'Publication Scheme' obligation on academies?
The FOIA requires every public authority (including academies) to make certain information publicly available under a 'publication scheme'.
There is a model publication scheme that academies can use (which is available here). This sets out information which academies are required to publish, which should be done by placing it, or links to it, on the academy's website where possible. In practice, this should pre-empt many FOI requests.
What are the consequences of non-disclosure?
If an academy refuses an FOI request, the enquirer may complain to the academy, and the academy must deal with in accordance with its published complaints procedure.
If the enquirer is still not satisfied, they may appeal to the Information Commissioner. Where the Information Commissioner finds that the academy has failed to comply with its obligations under the FOIA, the Information Commissioner can issue a legally enforceable decision notice setting out the steps to be taken by the academy to put things right. If the academy fails to comply with the decision notice, the matter can be referred to the High Court which has the power to treat bodies subject to the FOIA as if they have been in contempt of court.
It is a criminal offence to wilfully conceal, damage or destroy information in order to avoid answering an FOI request, punishable by a fine and/or imprisonment.
What are the next steps?
- ensure that all members of staff at the academy are aware of the FOIA obligations and how to deal with an FOI request;
- dedicate a member of staff to be the academy's FOIA compliance officer and ensure that all colleagues are aware of the importance of channelling all FOI requests and information to them;
- following receipt of an FOI request, and before supplying any information requested, provide written notice of any charge that will be payable. Academies may charge for providing information requested provided such charges do not exceed the prescribed costs and disbursements set out in annex B of the guidance (please see the link at the end of this article);
- review the academy's complaints procedure to ensure that it deals with FOI and that complaints will be dealt with in a fair and impartial manner;
- ensure that written records are kept of all requests, correspondence, disclosures and refusals to disclose, along with any reasons for why a decision has been made; and
- implement a Publication Scheme.
Further Guidance and resources
Further guidance relating to the obligations of an academy trust under FOIA and a model publication scheme for academies is available in the Department for Education's guidance here.
If you would like to discuss any aspect of this article further, please contact Chris Billington or any member of the Wrigleys' Education team on 0113 244 6100.
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The information in this article is necessarily of a general nature. Specific advice should be sought for specific situations. If you have any queries or need any legal advice please feel free to contact Wrigleys Solicitors