Freedom of information decision notice
This recent case (Decision Notice against Batley Grammar School) sets out the obligations on a public authority when a freedom of information (FOI) request is made.
On 14 December 2021, the complainant requested the minutes of governors, committee, and academy member meetings for the school from September 2018 to present. The complainant wrote to the school again on 2 February 2022, resending their request, because they had not received an acknowledgment of receipt of their initial correspondence.
On 2 February 2022, the school stated that it had not received the original request of 14 December 2021 and formally acknowledged receipt of the request.
On 20 February 2022, the complainant contacted the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to complain about the school’s failure to respond to their request.
The Commissioner considered whether the school had complied with its obligations in relation to the time frame under section 10(1) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). Section 1(1) of the FOIA states that:
‘Any person making a request for information to a public authority is entitled:
- To be informed in writing by the public authority whether it holds information of the description specified in the request, and
- If that is the case, to have that information communicated to him.
Section 10(1) of the FOIA states that a public authority must respond ‘not later than the twentieth working day following the date of receipt’.
On 28 February 2022, the Commissioner wrote to the school to remind it of its responsibilities and asking it to provide a substantive response to the complainant’s request within 10 working days. However, the school failed to respond to the complainant.
The Commissioner’s decision was that the school had breached section 10 (1) of the FOIA in that it failed to provide a valid response to the request within the statutory time frame of 20 working days.
Contempt of court
The Commissioner has required the school to provide a substantive response to the request in accordance with its obligations under the FOIA. This must be done within 35 calendar days of the date of the decision notice. Failure to comply could result in the Commissioner making a written certification of this fact to the High Court, which may then be dealt with as a contempt of court.
Summary and advice
The School Governance (Roles, Procedures and Allowances) (England) Regulations 2013, applies to maintained schools. Under these regulations, committee minutes and committee papers are considered to be public documents and, therefore, must be made available to the public.
The DfE model academy articles of association, which applies to academies and multi-academy trusts, state that minutes and papers must be made public from ‘every meeting of the trustees’. The academy trust handbook states that this includes meetings of any local governing board and committee.
Although schools do have the right to keep some issues confidential, even confidential minutes can be requested under the FOIA, although some requests may be denied if the minutes contain personal information.
The FOIA presumes openness but recognises the need to protect sensitive and confidential information in certain circumstances. However, even where certain exemptions apply, if it is deemed to be in the public interest, that information must be released.
For further free advice for Governors and clerks please see https://askaclerk.co.uk/
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