The first published decision of the Information Tribunal under the
Freedom of Information Act 2000, has overturned a decision of the UK
Information Commissioner.

The case dealt with a series of requests from an individual named
Edward Barber, to the Inland Revenue regarding Self Assessments. On the
introduction of Self-Assessments, delays were experienced in tax
refunds. Mr Barber had suggested solutions to the problem to the Inland
Revenue. In February of this year, Mr Barber made an FOI request for
information regarding what actions had been taken by the Inland Revenue
in relation to several examples of 'maladministration' and 'failed
standards' regarding the prioritisation of identifiable Self-Assessment
refunds up until June 2003. Mr Barber had suggested a reform of the
procedure in September 2000 and was of the view that the Inland Revenue
had not done anything to remedy the problem until June 2003. At this
time, an Inland Revenue Newsboard Message was issued, directing staff
to deal with tax returns in a manner similar to Mr Barber's original
suggestions in 2000.

The Inland Revenue was not of the view that had been
'maladministration' or 'failed standards.' In this regard, the Chairman
of the Inland Revenue expressed to Mr Barber that they, therefore, had
no information to provide. Mr Barber continued his request by writing
two more letters clarifying his request. Again, no information was

In relation to Mr Barber subsequent complaint, the Information
Commissioner concluded that because Mr Barber's request was framed in a
way that levelled particular allegations and criticism at the Inland
Revenue, which were not recognised by them, the body could reasonably
and correctly state that they have no information to provide and are
thus unable to meet the request.

The Information Tribunal, however, was of a different view: "If
Public Authorities are permitted under the FOIA to pick and choose
which requests they respond to on the basis of whether or not they
approve of the language used by requesters, this would make a mockery
of the legislation…it would have been a more suitable course for the
Commissioner to have made further investigation of the Inland Revenue
and Mr Barber before making a decision."

The Tribunal found that Mr Barber had made a genuine request to know
what actions had taken place regarding the prioritisation of refunds of
overpaid tax and this should have been recognised by the Inland Revenue
over the course of Mr Barber's three letters. The Commissioner had
found the request to be ineffective based on its form. However, under
section 1(1) of the FOIA, there is no definition of a valid or
effective request as such. It was concluded that the Commissioner had
incorrectly decided that the information was not required to be

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