FoI: The Public Interest Test

A public authority can only withhold the information if the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosure.

The public interest here means the public good, not what is of interest to the public, and not the private interests of the requester. In carrying out the public interest test the authority should consider the circumstances at the time at which it deals with the request.

If carrying out an internal review, it may consider the circumstances up to the point that review is completed.

Public interest arguments for the exemption must relate specifically to that exemption. For example, where the exemption is about prejudice to a particular interest there is an inherent public interest in avoiding that prejudice.

However, there is not necessarily an inherent public interest where the exemption protects a particular class of information. The authority must consider the balance of public interest in the circumstances of the request.

There will always be a general public interest in transparency. There may also be a public interest in transparency about the issue the information relates to. The authority should consider any public interests that would be served by disclosing the information.

If there is a plausible suspicion of wrongdoing on the part of the public authority, this may create a public interest in disclosure. Even where this is not the case, there is a public interest in releasing information to provide a full picture.

The authority must consider the relative weight of the arguments for and against disclosure. This can be affected by the likelihood and severity of any prejudice; the age of the information; how far the requested information will help public understanding; and whether similar information is already in the public domain.

Where a qualified exemption applies and the authority does not wish to confirm nor deny that it holds the requested information, the decision to give a ‘neither confirm nor deny’ response is itself subject to the public interest test.