What are the reasons to refuse a request?

You can refuse a request if:

  • it would cost too much to comply;
  • the request is vexatious or repeated; or
  • the information is exempt from disclosure under one of the exemptions in the Act.

When refusing you must send the requester a written refusal notice.

Vexatious and repeated requests

You can:

  • refuse ‘vexatious’ requests. Note that it is the request that can be considered vexatious, not the requestor;
  • refuse requests ‘identical or substantially similar’ to a previous request from the same person within a reasonable time period (repeated requests).

Our guidance explains how to judge whether a request is vexatious or repeated:

You may also ‘aggregate’ the cost of related requests from the same person or campaign group within 60 days for the purpose of estimating the cost of compliance.

Our guidance on Using the Fees Regulations explains what is involved in aggregating costs.

The exemptions

The Act also recognises that there may be valid reasons for withholding information by setting out a number of exemptions from the right to know, some of which are subject to a public interest test.

There are 23 exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act, divided as follows:

Those that apply to a whole category (or class) of information, for example:

  • information about investigations and proceedings conducted by public authorities;
  • court records;
  • trade secrets.

Those that are subject to a ‘prejudice’ test, where disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice for example:

  • the interests of the United Kingdom abroad;
  • the prevention or detection of crime; or
  • the activity or interest described in the exemption.

For an explanation of what is meant by ‘prejudice’ see our guidance on prejudice and adversely affect .

The public interest test applies to most exemptions. When the test does apply these are called qualified exemptions. Those to which the test does not apply are called absolute exemptions.

Exemptions for personal information:

  • If personal information relates to the applicant, the request must be dealt with as a ‘subject access request’ made under the Data Protection Act 1998.
  • If the information requested relates to a third party, a decision on whether to release it will be based on whether releasing it would contravene the Data Protection Act.

When refusing a request for information, you cannot withhold an entire document because some of the information contained within it is exempt. You must provide a redacted version of the document along with a refusal notice stating why some of the information cannot be released; see our page on what does redaction mean.

When refusing information you must explain which exemption or exemptions you have applied, why you have applied them and, where appropriate, fully explain the public interest factors for and against disclosure. See our page on how should I refuse a request for more information on this.

There are no exemptions for:

  • Embarrassment; or
  • Incorrect or out of date information.

The following guidance notes provide further information on each of the 23 exemptions:

Section 21 - Information reasonably accessible to the applicant by other means (AG6)

Section 22 - Information intended for future publication (AG7)

Section 23 - Information supplied by or relating to security bodies - new

Section 24 - The national security exemption – new

Section 26 - Defence (AG10)

Section 27 - International relations (AG14)

Section 28 - Relations within the UK (AG13)

Section 29 - Economy (AG15)

Section 30 - Investigations (AG16) – recently updated 03/08/09

Section 31 - Law enforcement (AG17) – recently updated 03/08/09

Section 32 - Information contained in court records (AG9)

Section 32 - Information contained in court transcripts

Section 33 - Public audit (AG18)

Section 34 - Parliamentary privilege – under review

Section 35 - Policy formulation, Ministerial communications, Law Officers’ advice and the operation of Ministerial Private Office (AG24)

Section 36 - Effective conduct of public affairs (AG25)

Section 36 - What should be recorded? – new

Section 37 - Communications with Her Majesty and the awarding of honours (AG26)

Section 38 - Health and safety (AG19)

Section 39 - Environmental information (EIR guidance pages)

Section 40 - Personal Information (AG1) – recently updated 11/11/08

Section 40 - Access to information about public authorities’ employees

Section 40 - When should salaries be disclosed?

Section 40 - When should names be disclosed?

Section 40 - Complaints and investigations files – how to approach them

Section 40 - Guidance on dealing with requests for MP’s correspondence relating to constituents

Section 40 - Update note: Applying the exemption for third party personal data: the Tribunal’s approach in House of Commons v IC & Leapman, Brooke and Thomas

Section 40 and 41 - Access to information about the deceased

Section 41 - Information provided in confidence (AG2)

Section 41 - The duty of confidence and the public interest

Section 41 - Information provided in confidence relating to contracts

Section 42 - Legal professional privilege (AG4)

Section 43 - Commercial interest (AG5)

Section 43 - Public sector contracts – FOI annexe

Section 43 - Commercial detriment of third parties

Section 44 - Prohibitions on disclosure (AG27)

Section 44 - Enterprise Act 2002 and Freedom of Information Act 2000 - new

Section 44 - Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 and Freedom of Information Act 2000

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