And another thing….

I blogged about vexatious punters last week, with the egregious example of an applicant plaguing the London Borough of Richmond-Upon-Thames with a variety of unacceptable messages. A decision published by the Tribunal yesterday delivers a vital message to the aggrieved applicant. If you think your public authority is up to something then “the proper course of action would be to approach the police or other law enforcement authority, rather than continuing to harass the [public authority]”. However, the rest of the decision shows the flipside to Richmond’s righteous refusal, and perhaps an itchy trigger finger somewhere in Wilmslow. Most useful of all, we have a perfect example of what labelling a person as vexatious might look like.
The tussle is between Devon County Council and a Mr Alan Dransfield, and the decision is here: http://tinyurl.com/3bqjjev
Mr D sounds like he might be a handful, making 11 FOI requests between 2005 and 2010, as well as sending more than 25 other pieces of correspondence. He has a familiar MO: “repeated accusations of fraud, malfeasance, and criminal behaviour”. In that time, I’ve contacted my council once to ask for a sofa to be collected, another time to tell them that my bin had not been collected, and made one FOI request. I imagine that I annoyed the FOI officer occasionally, but that was in a work capacity and I’ve never accused anyone at the Council of anything. So compare our friend to me (trust me, I can be annoying), and he could be seen to be a bit vexatious.
But the Tribunal doesn’t think so, and in a remarkably concise decision, explains why. 11 requests in five years is not back-breaking (in comparison, I’ve made four to the ICO in just over a month). Mr Dransfield made FOIs about three or four different issues, linked only by a general concern over concrete and health & safety. The request in dispute is what all parties agree is a completely innocuous question about a bridge – no mention of corruption or incompetence, and positively no-one is referred to as a turd (http://tinyurl.com/6ymfz3a).
Paragraph 35 of the decision is excellent, extracting the underlying threads of a number of different previous vexationeers to show how they demonstrated an underlying grievance connecting the hydra heads of their requests. They then contrast this with the relatively disparate wave of requests issued by Mr Dransfield. There is no single axe-to-grind, no evidence of a campaign intended or otherwise. In short, while dealing with this gent was clearly not easy, the lack of a clear pattern across his requests means that they are not vexatious. Effectively, Devon seem to have labelled Mr Dransfield himself as the vexatious element, rather than his requests. It’s a case of “not HIM again”, which is always a risky place to start.

When dealing with the vexatious FOI applicant, it’s impossible to draw a line and say that a person can never ask a question again – even the worst offender can surprise you with a harmless question about hanging baskets or your policy on flared trousers (banned by a previous government of Malawi, fact fans), and you have to swallow it. Anyone currently feeling vexed by one of their punters should read this decision – it’s very helpful, even if it won’t necessarily be what you want to hear

How not to get information

I reviewed some Information Commissioner FOI decisions recently for a presentation, and as always, I was drawn to the vexatious ones, both actual and alleged. There’s an intriguing one where a resident had a vehicular disagreement with a council lawnmower and made FOIs as the insurance case went on. I’ve had my fair share of insults, and being told by an applicant that they weren’t born yesterday and facing accusations of chicanery over some lawnmower insurance documents doesn’t come close. Until they threaten to have you imprisoned, it doesn’t impress me. The applicant and her fiancé (also an FOI regular) aired their grievances in the local press – connoisseurs of punning headlines can only hope that the sub-editor came up with something grassy.
Not every FOI applicant is a joy to deal with, but the Lawnmower Two certainly weren’t vexatious. They may have been angry and were definitely persistent, but that’s not the same thing. A remarkable recent case of vexatiousness demonstrates what unacceptable language really looks like. An applicant asked the London Borough of Richmond-Upon-Thames about arrangements for a police consultative body (the decision notice is here: http://tinyurl.com/6adfljn). Correspondence ensued.
Staff were told to ‘pull their finger out’. We can all live with that. They were accused of being ‘devious’; I’ve had that one too. But then the applicant drew attention to a staff member’s ‘colourful name’, suggested English wasn’t their first language, and asked if they were a refugee. OK, I’m out: this is vexatious. But there’s more. The chief executive was alleged to be involved in corruption, an officer was described as a ‘tart’, and another was labelled a ‘pig-ignorant turd’. There is a letter headed ‘Prostitution’ which reads like what I invent to liven up training exercises, except it’s real. Robust correspondence slides quickly and inexorably into what I would say is straight abuse. Even if an applicant doesn’t like or respect an organisation or its decision-making, there’s a line you don’t cross. Our friend here diligently shows us where it is. The Decision Notice suggests that Richmond were open and helpful, making all of the above even harder to fathom.
Some people start from the position that all public servants are inherently corrupt and / or incompetent. But the rudeness here is unforgiveable, and is matched only by the Herculean self-sabotage. After all, if one actually wanted an answer, this is the mirror image of how to achieve it. The people who deal with FOIs are human beings, not shop dummies to be kicked around. They’re going to say no if you call them turds and worse, and every step in the chain is going to vindicate them.
I suppose that the ‘fun’ for the dedicated vexationeer (new word – what do you think?) is the frustration they cause – it’s vandalism via correspondence. I once dealt with an FOI applicant whose aim was to cause offence and then complain when he was turned down, so my regular tactic was to answer their questions as fully as possible. It drove him nuts. But for the applicant who wants an answer, like this one seemed to, I don’t get it. The DN makes the valuable point that not only is the language unacceptable, but a constant insistence that things are corrupt when all the evidence provided shows no such thing is obsessive.
An FOI officer, like any public servant, needs to be resilient and have a sense of humour. In my experience, the majority fit the bill. But a council officer should not have to swallow stuff like this. The worst thing is, the Richmond applicant may have thought he was being funny. He started his emails with “Greetings”, a hallmark of A Man Who Thinks He’s Hilarious, and often wrote with a cheery nudge-nudge tone. But this wasn’t tactless buffoonery, it was vexatious, causing understandable offence and getting nowhere with the Council or the ICO.
Commiserations to the fine folk at the Council for this request, but it sounds like they did sterling work despite such provocations. I hope they don’t mind if the next few rounds of FOI training I do includes this as an example.
And now, to find the news coverage of the lawnmower.