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Your Rights FAQs

Your Rights FAQs

Still unsure of your FOI rights or the appeals process? Find more information in our FAQs below. 

FOI Rights FAQs

What information can I access under FOI?

You can make a request to a Scottish public authority for any kind of recorded information. That includes written information held in paper files, electronic documents and emails as well as other formats such as audio and video.

Our guidance on what you can ask for provides examples of information you might want to see, including:

  • How and why decisions affecting local services have been made, such as cutbacks at hospitals or schools, or repairs to roads or buildings
  • The number of complaints about a particular issue, such as bullying in schools or missed bin collections, and whether action was taken as a result
  • Contracts with private companies for public services like cleaning, catering, care services or construction projects, to find out how these services are managed

Remember, FOI only applies to recorded information – so it won't cover someone’s thoughts or opinions, unless they've been recorded, and authorities don’t have to create new information just to answer your request.

If you're not sure what information an authority holds, you can ask them before you make your request. Also, you might not have to make a request for the information that you want – it may be published already, for example on the authority’s website.

Are there different rules for environmental information?

Yes – if the information you want is about the environment, the authority will respond to your request under separate legislation, the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations (EIRs). There are equivalent Regulations covering the rest of the UK.

The EIRs cover information about the environment itself, about things that affect the environment – such as emissions, radiation or other types of pollution – and also policies and plans relating to the environment. Some examples of environmental information are:

  • Levels of chlorine in swimming pools
  • Water and air quality test report
  • Policies on genetically modified crops
  • Air conditioning systems in public buildings

The EIRs are generally similar to the FOI Act, although there are different rules for some aspects. We provide a comparison of FOI and EIR law on our Briefings page.

How do I find out if an organisation is covered by the Scottish FOI Act?

Under FOI, you can ask for information from a wide range of Scottish public authorities, including:

  • The Scottish Government and its agencies
  • The Scottish Parliament
  • Local councils and NHS bodies
  • Universities and colleges
  • Police and fire services
  • Leisure and cultural trusts
  • Housing associations
  • Publicly-owned companies…and many more.

The list changes from time to time as new authorities are created, others are changed or abolished, or the law is amended to incorporate new types of organisation. The EIRs also apply to a broader range of authorities than FOI.

To find out if a particular authority is covered, check the list on our website. Alternatively, you can visit the organisation’s own website or ask them directly.

Can I send a request to an organisation outside Scotland?

It might be that the organisation you want information from is not on our list because it’s covered by the UK FOI Act (FOIA), for example if it’s a UK government department or agency. FOIA provides similar rights to information, which means you can make a request to one of these organisations, and if they’re covered, they must respond to you.

For advice on getting information from a UK public authority, you can contact the ICO. Don’t be put off sending a request just because you’re not sure whether the authority is covered and by which Act – all you have to do is ask.

Are private contractors covered by FOI?

Where a private company is carrying out a major public project, or another service that would normally be the responsibility of a Scottish public authority, it may be added to the list, but only its involvement in public-sector work would be covered, not any other parts of its business.

Either way, it may be that the authority for which the contractor is carrying out the project or service also holds relevant information which is already subject to FOI.

Anyone can recommend organisations to be covered by FOI. The Scottish Government has the power to designate new authorities, and it is they who make proposals that must then be agreed by the Scottish Parliament.

Get in touch with us if you have any queries about who is covered by FOI.

Can I see my own personal information?

Yes – the Data Protection Act gives you the right to see information about yourself, as well as to request correction, deletion or restrictions on the use of your own personal data.

Data protection law is enforced by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) for the whole of the UK. The ICO website has lots of information and guidance about your data protection rights, and you can contact them if you have a query or want to make a complaint about the use of your data.

Requesting Information FAQs

Do I have to make a special request for any information held by a public authority?

You won't have to make a special request for any information which is already published by the public authority. Such information will be described in their publication scheme, which is a document listing the types of information which the authority has already made available and giving details of how you can access the information. The publication scheme should be available on the authority's website, or provided on request.

What about information which is not listed in a publication scheme?

You can generally request any information which is not already listed in the authority's publication scheme, but there are some situations which may allow the public authority to withhold specific information. Such information is said to be "exempt" from disclosure, and includes information which would threaten national security, or would "substantially prejudice" the effective conduct of public affairs or the administration of justice. There are other types of information which can be withheld in certain circumstances, such as trade secrets, personal information and information intended for publication within 12 weeks. Many of these exemptions are subject to a "public interest" test, which means that even if an exemption applies, it should still be released if release would be in the public interest. The Act makes it quite clear that the balance should always lie in favour of releasing the information. If the information you request is not supplied, the public authority has to make clear why it is withholding the information. If you believe they should not have withheld the information you can ask the Scottish Information Commissioner to investigate.

How do I apply to a public authority to get information from them?

Any request made to a public authority in writing is regarded as a request under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act (the FOI Act), as long as it contains your name and a contact address, and a description of the information you are seeking. You don't have to refer to the FOI Act but you do have to make the request in writing or in another recorded way that can be used for further reference e.g. by e-mail. Please note your name must be included in the main text of the request (i.e. not just as the sender of an email, for example).

Can freedom of information requests be made using sites such as Facebook and Twitter?

In theory it is possible that requests can be made via sites such as Facebook and Twitter, but to be valid they still have to comply with section 8 of the FOI Act, which requires that requests state the name and address of the applicant and an address for correspondence as well, of course, as describing the information requested.

Requests which are anonymous or which use pseudonyms will not be valid. This is less likely to be an issue with Facebook (Facebook asks users to provide their real name), but may cause problems with Twitter. Although it may be possible to find out the real name of the applicant through a Twitter user's linked profile, the Commissioner takes the view that, for the request to be valid, the name of the requester must be evident from the tweet itself.

As mentioned above, you must also include an address for correspondence. Given the restrictions on responding (see below), it is preferable if the request contains an email or postal address where a response may be sent.

Where your request does not specify the name of the applicant or an address for correspondence, public authorities should, in line with their duty to provide advice and assistance under section 15 of the FOI Act, tell you what you have to do to make the request valid and how best to use your information rights. Often, the easiest option will be for the authority to ask you to make a new request via email or suggest they use www.whatdotheyknow.com. However, if the information can easily be provided, public authorities may instead choose just to disclose the information, while making you aware that the request is in fact invalid.

Public authorities are likely to face difficulties replying to requests made via Facebook or Twitter, particularly if they are refusing to disclose information (given the need to issue a notice complying with section 16 of the FOI Act) or are disclosing large amount of information. (As is well known, Twitter only allows messages of up to 280 characters.) In order to comply with the FOI Act, public authorities must "give" applicants information (see section 1(1)) or "give" a notice (see e.g. section 16(1)) explaining why the information is not being provided. It is not yet clear whether providing applicants with a link where they can access the information or read the notice is sufficient to comply with this duty, although applicants are perhaps unlikely to complain if information is provided, or a notice is given, in this way. Again, the best solution may be for the authority to ask you to provide an email or postal address to allow the authority to "give" a response or suggest they use www.whatdotheyknow.com.

The Commissioner has not yet received any applications for a decision following on from a request made via Facebook or Twitter and this is new and untested area. Decisions as to whether requests (and subsequent applications) are valid will be made on a case by case basis and this guidance will be updated to reflect any decisions made.

Public authorities should also be aware that requests for environmental information made under the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 (the EIRs) may, given that there is no express requirement to provide an address for correspondence, be more likely to be valid if made via Facebook or Twitter than requests under the FOI Act.

Finally, authorities need to remember that they are under a duty to provide advice and assistance to you. So, if you are trying to make a request through Facebook or Twitter, the authority should respond.

Can I apply for information on behalf of another person?

Yes. There is nothing to stop you making an application on behalf of another person. However, if you are making a request on behalf of someone else, you must provide the name of the "true" applicant (i.e. the name of the person you are applying on behalf of). If you do not, the public authority will have the right to refuse to deal with your request on the basis that it is invalid. Public authorities have a duty to advise and assist you, so if they believe your request is invalid, for any reason, they must provide you with reasonable advice, which might include helping you to make a valid request. While you have to provide an address for communication, it does not have to be the address of the "true" applicant (although you can supply this if you want to).

What if a public authority asks me if I am making my request on behalf of someone else?

If a public authority asks you if you are making a request on behalf of someone else, you are under no obligation to answer that query - but if your request is not on behalf of someone else, it would usually be a good idea to say so, to avoid delays. If you choose not to respond to the public authority, then it must have reasonable grounds for believing that your request was made on behalf of someone else before it can decide your request is invalid.

What if a public authority tells me my request is invalid because they believe I am asking on behalf of another, unnamed party?

If a public authority refuses your request on these grounds, you can follow the review procedures in the FOI Act i.e. request a review and ultimately appeal to the Commissioner. In the event of an appeal, if the authority cannot show the Commissioner that the request was made on behalf of another person, the Commissioner will overturn the authority's decision and, in some cases, may simply order the release of the information.

Can I ask for copies of documents?

The FOI Act gives people the right to recorded information, rather than an entitlement to copies of specific documents. This does not mean, however, that requests for documents are automatically invalid. "Documents" come in a range of formats, including (but not necessarily restricted to) paper files and documents and reports, video or sound recordings, maps, correspondence, microfiche and microfilm, or other electronic formats. You should describe the information you want, as clearly and precisely as possible, in order to help the public authority identify and locate it. That might include referring to documents which contain the information you want. This is likely to be valid, as long as your request describes the information you want in such a way that the public authority can identify and locate it.

If you are asking for environmental information, however, the EIRs do give you a right to copies of specific documents on request.

What if a public authority tells me my request is invalid because I have asked for documents and not adequately described the information I want?

Public authorities have a duty to advise and assist you, so if they believe your request is invalid, for any reason, they must provide you with reasonable advice, which might include helping you to make a valid request. You could contact them for advice on how to describe the information you want in a way that enables them to identify and locate it.

If, however, an authority decides to treat your request as invalid, you can follow the review procedures in the FOI Act i.e. request a review and ultimately appeal to the Commissioner. If the Commissioner comes to the view that the request was in fact valid, the Commissioner will overturn the authority's decision, and in some cases may simply order the release of the information.

How do I know I'm writing to the correct public authority?

The authority will inform you if it does not hold the information you are requesting. It may be aware of where the information is held in which case it has a duty to assist you by suggesting another public authority to which you should submit your request.

Will my request for information cost me anything?

Most requests should be dealt with free of charge and where a fee is charged it is likely to be small. If the cost to the authority is more than £100 but £600 or less, the authority can charge you 10% of the cost of providing the information, but the first £100 is always free. So the maximum it can charge you in most situations is £50 (this would be where the cost to the authority is £600). If the total cost to the authority is more than £600 the authority can refuse your request.

If, however, you are asking for environmental information, then it is dealt with under the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 (the EIRs) and the above fees regulations do not apply. An authority can charge you a fee which does not exceed a "reasonable amount", i.e. no more than the cost to the authority of providing it to you. The "£100 free" and £600 upper limit do not apply to charges for environmental information. An authority cannot charge, however, for access to public registers or lists of environmental information, or to inspect environmental information on-site at the authority.

Most information in a publication scheme is free of charge or available for a small fee. If there is a charge, the scheme must show details of the charges. The charge for providing some information, such as birth, marriage and death certificates, may be set by other laws.

For more information, check out our how much will it cost page. 

What happens if I am not happy with the response I get from a Scottish public authority?

If you are not happy with the decision of the authority you can ask them to review their decision. If you are still dissatisfied after they have reviewed their decision you can then (and only then) make an application for determination by the Scottish Information Commissioner. The Commissioner can then investigate the decision and determine whether you should receive the information requested in full or in part, or whether the authority's decision should be upheld.