Local Government Employee Fined For Illegally Deleting Item Requested Under Freedom Of Information Act

from the it-may-be-small,-but-it's-still-a-win dept

Techdirt writes about freedom of information matters often enough. Sadly, many of the stories are about governments and other official bodies refusing to comply with local Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) laws for various reasons, and using a variety of tricks. In other words, rights to FOI may exist in theory, but the practice falls woefully short. That makes the following story from the UK a welcome exception.

It concerns Nicola Young, a local government employee in the English market town of Whitchurch, in Shropshire. Part of her job as town clerk was to handle FOIA requests for the local council. One such request asked for a copy of the audio recording of a council meeting. Apparently the person requesting the file believed that the written minutes of the meeting had been fabricated, and wanted to check them against the recording. However, the reply came back that the file had already been deleted, as was required by the official council policy.

Undeterred, the person requesting the file sent a complaint to the UK's main Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), which carried out an investigation. The ICO discovered that the town clerk had not only claimed that the audio file had already been deleted when it actually existed, but that she personally deleted it a few days after the FOI request was made. Quite why is not clear, but as a result:

On Wednesday 11 March, Young, of Shrewsbury Street, Whitchurch, Shropshire, was convicted at Crewe Magistrates after pleading guilty to blocking records with the intention of preventing disclosure and was fined £400 [about $490], ordered to pay costs of £1,493 [$1,835] and a victim surcharge £40 [$50].

In its press release on the case, the ICO comments that it "marks the first ever successful conviction under the [UK's] FOIA.". It may be a small victory, but we'll take it.

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Filed Under: foia, nicola young, record destruction, uk

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  1. icon
    Upstream (profile), 19 Mar 2020 @ 7:22am


    In my area (Florida) the local school system (School District) has a long history of corruption and malfeasance of all types. At one point, after a whistle-blower obtained some incriminating documents via public records requests, it was reported in the local papers that the School District Superintendent then advised all School District personnel to just not write anything down.

    In another instance, another whistle-blower reported this to the local papers ("District" refers to the local School District):

    I have been informed by District legal counsel that when I am provided with a document, the District does not couch for or otherwise guarantee that the document is what it purports to be. There is no representation by the District, implied or real, that the contents of the document are valid, authentic, or accurate. This is especially the case when the document purports to be a District policy or procedure.

    In other words, the school system can provide you with complete BS, and it is up to you to prove that it is BS, which would probably be impossible, since any evidence to prove that it is BS would probably need to come from the school system.

    These are just a couple of examples of the myriad ways that government agencies circumvent open records laws. Others include complete document redactions for reasons that can't be substantiated or refuted (can you say "national security"?), indefinite delays, exorbitant and prohibitive "copying and research" fees, etc.

    Unfortunately the FOIA and similar open records laws have, in most cases, become a complete joke. Instances where they accomplish what they were intended to accomplish are rare exceptions.

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