What is the Freedom of Information Act?

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 is a framework for the disclosure of information held by public authorities, and by parties acting for public authorities.

The principle behind freedom of information legislation generally is that the general public have a right to know about the activities of public authorities. The premise of the Act is that information should be disclosed, unless there are good reasons for not doing so.

Who can make a freedom of information request?

Anyone is entitled to make a freedom of information request. The person making the request does not have to be a British citizen or resident in the UK. Information requests can also be made by organisations, such as newspapers and campaign groups.

Information requesters should direct their requests to the public authority they believe holds the information. The public authority receiving the request is responsible for responding.

Key provisions of the Freedom of Information Act  

The Act provides a statutory right of access to information held by public authorities. These include public bodies such as:

  • Central and local government
  • National Health Service
  • Schools, colleges and universities
  • Police forces, the Courts and Tribunals
  • Other non-departmental public bodies, including executive agencies and committees
  • Companies which are wholly owned by the Crown, the wider public sector, or both the Crown and the wider public sector

Exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act

Some classes of information are exempt from the duty of disclosure under the Act. Exemptions can be either ?absolute', or subject to a ?public interest' test.

Absolute exemptions to the duty of disclosure include information relating to:

  • Security
  • Parliamentary privilege
  • Court records
  • Personal information (which is covered by the Data Protection Act 1998)

Duties of public authorities regarding freedom of information

Under the Act, public authorities are required to:

  • Assist enquirers in accessing information - The Act allows authorities to charge a fee for responding to requests, in accordance with Regulations set by the Secretary of State
  • Produce publicly available schedules for the publication of information - Schedules must include a list of information the authority intends to publish, and the mode of publication e.g.: hard copy, e-copy

What kind of information is covered by the Freedom of Information Act?

The Act covers recorded information held by public authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Act also covers UK-wide public authorities based in Scotland. Information held by Scottish public authorities comes under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

However, the Act does not cover every organisation that receives public money. Some charities which receive public grants, and certain private sector organisations performing public service functions, are not covered by the Act.

What is the definition of ?recorded information' under the Act?

Recorded information includes printed documents, computer files, emails, photographs, sound recordings and video.

Does the Freedom of Information Act affect copyright and intellectual property?

When disclosing information under the Act, no restrictions or conditions can be placed on access to the information. However, the Act does not affect the copyright and intellectual property rights of owners of the original work. If public sector information is to be used for commercial purposes, an application under the Re-use of Public Sector Information Regulations must be made.

Personal injury and the Freedom of Information Act

Various parties have claimed under the Act to learn more about how public bodies treat personal injury claims. Requesters have, for example, enquired about the number of injury claims that have been made against police forces or medical negligence claims against hospital trusts around the country, and how much has been paid out to settle these claims.

Information disclosed under the Act can assist charities and other groups focusing on issues like workplace safety and NHS negligence to better understand how individuals are affected by personal injury and what can be done to support their rehabilitation, and to prevent accidents occurring in the future.