What is the public interest test?
The public interest test in Section 2 of the FOIA provides that the council must release the information unless, "in all the circumstances of the case, the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information".
This requires the council to make a judgement about the public interest. Where the balance between disclosure and withholding the information is seen as equal, the information must be released.
What is public interest?
There is no legal definition of what the public interest is but Meredith Cook in her 2003 Study "Balancing the Public Interest: Applying the public interest test to exemptions in the UK Freedom of Information Act 2000" identifies the following as some of the relevant considerations in favour of disclosure:
- The public interest in disclosure is particularly strong where the information in question would assist public understanding of an issue that is subject to current national debate.
- The issue has generated public or parliamentary debate.
- Proper debate cannot take place without wide availability of all the relevant information.
- The issue affects a wide range of individuals or companies.
- The public interest in a local interest group having sufficient information to represent effectively local interests on an issue.
- Facts and analysis behind major policy decisions.
- Knowing reasons for decisions.
- Accountability for proceeds of sale of assets in public ownership.
- Openness and accountability for tender processes and prices.
- Public interest in public bodies obtaining value for money.
- Public health.
- Contingency plans in an emergency.
- Damage to the environment.
In the introduction to the FOIA the Information Commissioner lists the following public interest factors that would encourage the disclosure of information:
- Furthering the understanding of and participation in the public debate of issues of the day.
- Promoting accountability and transparency by public authorities for decisions taken by them.
- Promoting accountability and transparency in the spending of public money.
- Allowing individuals to understand decisions made by public authorities affecting their lives and, in some cases, assisting individuals in challenging those decisions.
- Bringing to light information affecting public safety.
The guidance from the Information Commissioner's Officer is in the Freedom of Information Act Awareness Guidance No 3 The Public Interest Test, which is available from the Information Commissioners Office