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Introduction to exemptions

Chapter 07: What is the public interest test?

The starting point whenever considering the balance of the public interest is that there is a general public interest in disclosure. In contrast, there is no general public interest in public authorities withholding information.

But the right to know must be balanced against the need to facilitate effective government. Therefore, for each qualified exemption, and the disclosure of any particular piece of information falling within it, there may be particular public interest considerations in favour of refusing the request.

Lord Falconer, Secretary of State:
(14 November 2000. Lords Hansard, col. 143)

When considering a request for information that falls under one of the qualified exemptions, officials must weigh the public interest considerations in favour of releasing the information, and the public interest considerations in favour of not disclosing the information.

The assessment of the public interest is a judgement in which policy and legal interpretations are both involved to some degree: it is an inherently dynamic concept. The law and practice of the public interest test will develop by decisions made within Government and by the Information Commissioner and the courts.

The balance of public interest may shift as information becomes older. To disclose a piece of information before or shortly after a policy decision is made may, for example, within the terms of section 35, prejudice the formulation of government policy. But this will not remain the case indefinitely.

Applicants can challenge a public authorities determination of where the balance of the public interest falls in respect of their information request. Applicants will be able to ask public authorities to conduct an internal review in the first instance but if the information is still withheld, they can subsequently ask the Information Commissioner to review the decision to withhold information.

Ultimately, this balance of the public interest could also become a matter for the courts. Good decision-making on the public interest, is therefore essential.

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