The ICO exists to empower you through information.

Sophie Turner

Sophie Turner is the Senior Upstream Regulation Officer – FOI and Transparency


""Public organisations hold a huge amount of information across a wide range of areas. That’s why it’s vital that practitioners understand exactly what people are asking for when dealing with requests under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act or the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR).

Unclear requests make it difficult to respond effectively and within the mandatory timeframes. Without clarity, organisations not only risk providing the wrong information, which could damage people’s confidence in the organisation, it could also create extra work for everyone involved.

Clarifying FOI requests is an area that we are asked about regularly, and while there is detailed guidance on our website, we know that sometimes some simple tips can be helpful. This information should help practitioners get to grips with the issue quickly and easily.

What do I do if I don’t understand a request?

Supporting people to refine their requests is an important part of your role.

If you’re not sure what information is being asked for, you should contact the requester as soon as possible for clarification, and within 20 working days of receiving their request.

If you rely on other people in your organisation to provide the information to you, ask them to tell you straight away if they don’t understand the request.

Does asking for clarification change the timeframe to respond?

Treat the clarified request as a new request for information. This means that, once you understand what’s being asked for, you should usually respond to the clarified request within 20 working days.

What’s the best way to ask for clarification?

Remember that the requester doesn’t know what information you hold, or how you hold it. Try to be helpful and supportive. There may be a reason why they’re reluctant to engage with your organisation, but you can be reassuring and build some trust.

You could phone the requester and explain to them what information you hold. But do agree the wording of the request in writing.

Try asking the requester for key words to use in your searches; it might focus the request more objectively.

How long does the requester have to clarify?

The section 45 Code of Practice suggests that two months is a reasonable time to wait before closing the request. But, even if you’ve waited longer, you might decide it’s not unreasonable to handle it, once you understand what’s being asked for.

What if people keep coming back to us and we still don’t know what they want?

This can be frustrating, but as long as you’ve taken reasonable steps to get clarification, in an amenable manner, you’ll have fulfilled your duty to provide advice and assistance.

Where can I get further help with FOI?

As the regulator for the FOI and EIR legislation, the ICO is here to help. Our website is home to a range of resources and guidance to support FOI practitioners and showcase best practice, so make sure you take a few minutes to explore what is available to you.