Line to take - LTT145 - Aggregation of multiple requests within a single item of correspondence
- FOI/EIR: FOI
- Section/Regulation: s12
- Issue: Aggregation of multiple requests within a single item of correspondence
- Source: Information Tribunal
- Details: Ian Fitzsimmons v ICO & DCMS
- Related Lines to Take: LTT138
- Related Documents: EA/2007/0124
- Contact: RM
- Date: 09/03/2009
- Policy Reference: LTT145
- © Copyright Information Commissioner's Office, re-used with permission
- Original source linked from here: LTT
Line to take
Technically, multiple requests within a single item of correspondence are separate requests for the purpose of section 12. If a public authority has applied the exclusion under section 12 to multiple requests within a single item of correspondence, we need to be satisfied that each request can be aggregated in accordance with the Fees Regulations. If it is found that one of the multiple requests is not similar to the others, the public authority will not be entitled to refuse that particular request under section 12 unless complying with the request by itself would exceed the cost limit.
It is not uncommon for requesters to request information in the form of several (often numbered) parts within a single item of correspondence. It has become common practice to view these parts as representing a single request for information rather than multiple requests. This has seldom caused any problem however it has become apparent that the Tribunal in Fitzsimmons (discussed below) took a different approach and considered these separate parts as individual requests.
When we are dealing with multiple requests within a single item of correspondence for section 12 cases, we need to be satisfied that each of the multiple requests meets the conditions for aggregation in the Fees Regulations (see related LTT138). If we do not recognise when we are dealing with multiple requests, there is a danger that we will fail to recognise when one of the requests should be considered separately because it is not similar to the others and we also deprive the requester of the opportunity to argue that the requests are not all similar in nature.
Ian Fitzsimmons and Department for Culture, Media and Sport
The above case concerned multiple requests made within a single item of correspondence to which the public authority had applied section 12. This case is perhaps somewhat unusual in that we did acknowledge on this occasion that we were dealing with separate requests and we also expressed the view that we were satisfied the requests were related. The only problem here was that we went on to add that because we believed the requests were similar, on that basis we would treat them as representing a single request in line with our “general approach”. Consequently, although it seems we had intuitively aggregated the requests, we did not refer explicitly to the Fees Regulations or the process of aggregation. The Tribunal criticised us for this and stated at paragraph 36 of it decision:
- “We were troubled by the description of the ‘Commissioner’s general approach’ being that where a number of information requests are made within a single item of correspondence it is appropriate for these to be considered a single request, unless the requests are entirely unrelated. The Fees Regulations prescribe the circumstances in which requests may be aggregated for the purposes of section 12 of the FOIA and should be followed by a public authority and the Commissioner. It is wrong to describe this as a ‘general approach’ and understandably mislead Mr Fitzsimmons”.
This decision highlighted that our Decision Notice on this occasion had been along the right lines in that:
- it recognised that each of the numbered points made by the complainant was technically a separate request
- it stated that unrelated requests should be considered separately
It is notable that it made no difference to the outcome whether we referred explicitly to aggregation as the Tribunal went on to uphold the Commissioner’s decision that section 12 applied, the only issue was with how we expressed our rationale in this particular case. It was clearly the view of the Tribunal that even when the outcome would be the same, we should ensure that we refer specifically to the conditions for aggregation under the Fees Regulations to avoid giving the impression that we are relying merely on our own views or a “general approach” rather than a specific legal framework.
Practical effect on case work
When dealing with refusals under section 12, we need to consider whether the correspondence actually represents one or more separate requests in line with this LTT. We then need to be satisfied that each request could be aggregated in accordance with the Fees Regulations. Experience of dealing with section 12 complaints has tended to show that, in the vast majority of cases, a requester is likely to be concerned with a single issue. He or she may make multiple requests merely as a way of trying to be precise about what information they are seeking. Therefore, it is anticipated that the aggregation of multiple requests within a single item of correspondence will not generally create much difficulty, particularly given that at paragraph 43 of the Fitzsimmons decision, the Tribunal also commented that the grounds for aggregation are very wide as the requests need only relate to any extent to similar information (see LTT138). The most important point is to be aware that there may be, on some occasions, a request that is not similar to the others and in those cases the public authority will not be entitled to refuse that particular request under section 12 unless the request by itself would exceed the cost limit.
In line with the Fitzsimmons decision, specific reference needs to be made to the Fees Regulations and the process of aggregation and the following standard paragraph should therefore be inserted in Decision Notices dealing with refusals under section 12 of multiple requests within a single item of correspondence.
- “The Commissioner notes that in this case the complainant has made more than one request within a single item of correspondence. Section 12(4) provides that, in certain circumstances set out in the Statutory Instrument 2004 No. 3244 “The Freedom of Information and Data Protection (Appropriate Limit and Fees) Regulations 2004” (“the Fees Regulations”), requests can be aggregated so that the estimated cost of complying with any of the requests is to be taken to be the estimated total cost of complying with all of them. Regulation 5 of the Fees Regulations sets out the relevant condition in this case and provides that multiple requests can be aggregated in circumstances where the two or more requests relate to any extent, to the same or similar information. Although this test is very broad, it is possible that one or more requests may not meet this test and the Commissioner has therefore considered whether he is satisfied that the requests relate to the same or similar information ”.
We will then need to go on to conclude either that the Commissioner is satisfied that the requests do relate to the same or similar information and can therefore be aggregated or that the Commissioner is not satisfied that all the requests relate to the same or similar information. In cases where we are not satisfied that all the requests can be aggregated, we will need to explain why.
NB. This line should not be applied to complaints being considered under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004. Separate work involving costs and manifestly unreasonable requests under the EIR is currently underway.