When dealing with the vexatious FOI applicant, it’s impossible to draw a line and say that a person can never ask a question again – even the worst offender can surprise you with a harmless question about hanging baskets or your policy on flared trousers (banned by a previous government of Malawi, fact fans), and you have to swallow it. Anyone currently feeling vexed by one of their punters should read this decision – it’s very helpful, even if it won’t necessarily be what you want to hear
I blogged about vexatious punters last week, with the egregious example of an applicant plaguing the London Borough of Richmond-Upon-Thames with a variety of unacceptable messages. A decision published by the Tribunal yesterday delivers a vital message to the aggrieved applicant. If you think your public authority is up to something then “the proper course of action would be to approach the police or other law enforcement authority, rather than continuing to harass the [public authority]”. However, the rest of the decision shows the flipside to Richmond’s righteous refusal, and perhaps an itchy trigger finger somewhere in Wilmslow. Most useful of all, we have a perfect example of what labelling a person as vexatious might look like.
The tussle is between Devon County Council and a Mr Alan Dransfield, and the decision is here: http://tinyurl.com/3bqjjev
Mr D sounds like he might be a handful, making 11 FOI requests between 2005 and 2010, as well as sending more than 25 other pieces of correspondence. He has a familiar MO: “repeated accusations of fraud, malfeasance, and criminal behaviour”. In that time, I’ve contacted my council once to ask for a sofa to be collected, another time to tell them that my bin had not been collected, and made one FOI request. I imagine that I annoyed the FOI officer occasionally, but that was in a work capacity and I’ve never accused anyone at the Council of anything. So compare our friend to me (trust me, I can be annoying), and he could be seen to be a bit vexatious.
But the Tribunal doesn’t think so, and in a remarkably concise decision, explains why. 11 requests in five years is not back-breaking (in comparison, I’ve made four to the ICO in just over a month). Mr Dransfield made FOIs about three or four different issues, linked only by a general concern over concrete and health & safety. The request in dispute is what all parties agree is a completely innocuous question about a bridge – no mention of corruption or incompetence, and positively no-one is referred to as a turd (http://tinyurl.com/6ymfz3a).
Paragraph 35 of the decision is excellent, extracting the underlying threads of a number of different previous vexationeers to show how they demonstrated an underlying grievance connecting the hydra heads of their requests. They then contrast this with the relatively disparate wave of requests issued by Mr Dransfield. There is no single axe-to-grind, no evidence of a campaign intended or otherwise. In short, while dealing with this gent was clearly not easy, the lack of a clear pattern across his requests means that they are not vexatious. Effectively, Devon seem to have labelled Mr Dransfield himself as the vexatious element, rather than his requests. It’s a case of “not HIM again”, which is always a risky place to start.