The Information Rights Tribunal has once again handed down a judgment highly critical – some may say excoriating – of Sussex University. Readers will remember last time this happened, but if they don’t they can click here to relive the experience.
This week’s decision allowed an appeal I brought, against the University’s refusal to disclose how much it spent on its previous (unsuccessful) appeal. Said previous appeal was a complete disaster for Sussex, and casts serious doubt on the wisdom and competence of the legal advisers who conducted it.
This time, the University had argued, at quite some length and, again, quite some legal expenditure, that my request for information was “vexatious” and “unjustified” – and might, horror of horrors, result in me publishing criticism of its senior managers on the internet.
The three-judge panel of the Tribunal was deeply unimpressed by these arguments. To give a quick, whistlestop tour of their judgment’s highlights:
On transparency and accountability
Sussex’s grounds for refusing my request included an assertion that I was “seeking to use the information requested to contribute to an ongoing campaign […] in order to criticise University management“, and said that they were worried answering my request would “have a disproportionately negative effect on the University“.
One might have thought a public body in the UK would expect to be the subject of scrutiny and tolerate that. So I was slightly alarmed to see Sussex taking it upon itself to decide when it should obey the Freedom of Information Act (ie. the law) and when it shouldn’t, and making itself the arbiter of which online criticism is acceptable and which is ‘disproportionate’.
So, too, was the Tribunal, which held: “It may well be that, if provided with the information, [Mr Webber] uses it in his satirical online publication but we do not consider that factor weighs against the value and purpose we find in the request itself.”
By happy coincidence, the judgment was released to parties on the same day that a government minister told Parliament: “[T]he ‘vexatious’ designation is not an excuse to save public officials’ embarrassment from poor decisions or inappropriate spending of taxpayers’ money.”
On the University’s excuses
Sussex had claimed that my request for information was valueless and nothing but a vindictive pursuit of previous disputes. The Tribunal, though, considered that “far from attempting to reopen earlier issues […] this request has a real value and a serious purpose.”
The University had argued that complying with my request (which simply required access to a single solicitors’ bill) would have been onerous and burdensome. The Tribunal, though, found that this “bald assertion” was insufficient: “[t]he University has not provided any direct evidence […] We are not persuaded that dealing with this request would result in a particularly onerous or costly burden.”
In an attempt by the University to portray me as “obsessive” (as described by the independent Information Commissioner), they highlighted the fact that I had been a party to last year’s appeal. The Tribunal, quite sensibly really, pointed out that “this is irrelevant as it was the University which appealed”.
A further attempt by the University to conduct a character assassination against myself – and it does have form in this regard – was its allegation that, in my freedom of information emails, I adopted an “aggressive” tone. The Tribunal read the emails and found, “[Mr Webber’s] tone, by and large, we regard as civil.” Hmm, ‘civil’ vs. ‘aggressive’ – seems like quite a distinction…
On the University’s FOI handling
Some of the judge’s most damning criticisms were reserved for comments on Sussex’s past freedom of information performance, however.
One of their complaints was about the number of requests I’ve made to them over the years, however the Tribunal held: “[S]ome of these were necessitated by fault on the part of the University in dealing with an earlier request.”
Similarly, what the University described as “aggressive” (see above) criticism of its FOI determinations, the Tribunal considered not only to be “civil” (see above – yes, again, it’s fun) but to “have some justification”. The judge particularly highlighted an incident in which Sussex had refused to release information to me in July 2013 on the grounds that it would be proactively published in February 2014, then when February 2014 came round decided it wouldn’t be released anyway because it was commercially sensitive – a decision then overturned by the Information Commissioner anyway.
Watch this space…