UK Tribunal To Decide Whether Gov’t Agencies Can Continue To Pretend There’s A Residency Requirement For FOI Requests

The UK’s Freedom of Information law is pretty straightforward when it comes to residency requirements. There aren’t any.

Anyone can make a freedom of information request – they do not have to be UK citizens, or resident in the UK. Freedom of information requests can also be made by organisations, for example a newspaper, a campaign group, or a company.

And yet, some UK government agencies have decided to read a residency requirement into a law that doesn’t contain one. As Owen Bowcott reports for The Guardian, these seemingly illegal non-responses to requests are about to be tested in court.

A combined hearing involving the Home Office, Metropolitan police, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and 13 separate cases is to be held at an information tribunal in London.

At issue is whether applicants overseas are entitled to a response when submitting freedom of information requests to UK government departments and agencies.

Nothing in the UK’s Freedom of Information law appears to institute a residency requirement for FOI requesters. Nor does it hint at territorial limitations that could allow agencies to withhold documents from certain requesters. But the agencies handling these 13 cases seem to feel there is a residency requirement and they appear to be applying this novel interpretation to screw with requesters they’d rather not respond to.

One set of requests deals with the UK’s government’s involvement with attempts to extradite Julian Assange for prosecution.

One of the blocked cases is an appeal by the Italian journalist Stefania Maurizi, who works for daily newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano and writes about WikiLeaks.

She has been pursuing information about how the Crown Prosecution Service dealt with its Swedish counterpart during initial attempts to extradite Assange to Sweden.

So, it appears that at least one of the 13 cases is about documents being withheld because the agency doesn’t want to release them, not because there’s a genuine question about whether the agency is obligated to respond to non-UK residents. Meanwhile, the government says it’s going to continue following the law… by not following the law in these 13 cases — at least until the tribunal says otherwise.