Freedom of information requests

A number of educational institutions that we act for have received freedom of information requests. If a response to the request must be given, the information provided by the educational institution will be published and anyone can gain access to that information.

Publicly available information can be prejudicial in certain respects, for example publishing certain information could restrict debate on a particularly important issue for an institution. Due to this, our clients often look at the exemptions contained in the Freedom of Information Act in order to avoid publishing information.

One particular exemption an educational institution may be able rely on is contained in section 36 of the Freedom of Information Act, which states that a response to a request need not be provided where releasing information would cause “prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs”. It can be applied where disclosure of the information “would or would be likely to inhibit the free and frank provision of advice or … exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation”. 

A straightforward example to illustrate where this exemption could apply is in the context of a maintained school and its governing body. If a governing body were to have a meeting to discuss if the school should convert to an academy,  it is likely to be the case that minutes are made of the meeting upon which a freedom of information request could be used so that a member of the public and the wider world could see them. However, it could certainly be argued for the purposes of the exemption detailed above that publishing such minutes would prevent or inhibit free and frank discussion, as the governing body may be concerned that what they say in any further meeting would become public.

In order to rely on the exemption, a qualified person for an educational institution must give their reasonable opinion as to why the exemption should be applied.  For the purpose of a maintained school, the qualified person is the Chair of the governing body and, for academies, it is the Chair of the Board of Directors or the proprietor of the academy.

If you would like to discuss freedom of information requests or the exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act with an education law solicitor, please do not hesitate to contact me.

The contents of this article are intended for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article.