Clarifying freedom of information requests
Produced in partnership with Kim Mayo of Essex County Council

The following Public Law practice note produced in partnership with Kim Mayo of Essex County Council provides comprehensive and up to date legal information covering:

  • Clarifying freedom of information requests
  • Reading a request objectively
  • The right to seek clarification and the duty to provide advice and assistance
  • Effect of seeking clarification on the timetable
  • Key considerations for public authorities

Reading a request objectively

Where a request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FIA 2000) is phrased clearly and unambiguously, the receiving public authority has 20 days to provide the requested information. There is generally no obligation to look for other possible readings of a clear request.

However, where the request is unclear, for example:

  1. there is more than one interpretation of the request, or

  2. on reviewing the context, where provided, the request becomes ambiguous

FIA 2000 provides a public authority with a mechanism to seek clarification to enable it to identify and locate the information requested.

In reading the request objectively a public authority needs to be careful to:

  1. avoid missing an ambiguity:

    1. in Berend v Information Commissioner and London Borough of Richmond upon Thames the public authority interpreted ‘all working papers and documents attached to Agendas’ to mean only working papers attached to agendas, failing to identify an alternative meaning—the authority was in breach of FIA 2000 as it failed to seek clarification

  2. use contextual information where provided to either clarify or highlight the need to seek clarification:

    1. where the public authority’s previous dealing with the applicant means it may require additional information, even if the request as worded is objectively clear, it would be permitted to seek clarification of the request—for example, a clear request for cost information on treating alcoho

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