Latest updates - 15 November 2023
15 November 2023 - We have updated this guidance to include more examples from ICO’s decision notices and Tribunal decisions.
About this detailed guidance
This guidance discusses regulation 12(4)(c) of the EIR in detail and is written for use by public authorities. Read it if you have questions not answered in The Guide to the Environmental Regulations or if you need a deeper understanding to help you apply regulation 12(4)(c) in practice.
- What do the EIR say?
- What is the meaning of “too general a manner”?
- Can you respond by neither confirming nor denying?
- Are we required to provide advice and assistance?
- What does the EIR code of practice say?
- Responses to requests for clarification
- What are the time limits for responding to a request formulated in too general a manner?
- How do we consider the public interest test?
- How does regulation 12(4)(c) compare with the Freedom of Information Act?
Regulation 12(4)(c) states:
For the purposes of paragraph (1)(a), a public authority may refuse to disclose information to the extent that –
(c) the request for information is formulated in too general a manner and the public authority has complied with regulation 9;
The EIR requires you to give access to the environmental information you hold, when requested.
When you receive a request, you should first establish if the requested information is environmental in nature. If you’d like more information on this, read our detailed guidance Regulation 2(1) - What is environmental information?.
The next step is to determine whether you hold the requested information for the purposes of the EIR. For more information on this, read our detailed guidance on Information you hold for the purposes of the EIR.
The duty to provide access to the requested information can be disapplied if you can demonstrate that an exception applies to the request.
Regulation 12(4)(c) is an exception which allows you to refuse to disclose environmental information if the applicant formulated the request in too general a manner, and you have provided them with advice and assistance in accordance with regulation 9.
The phrase “too general a manner” means a request is unclear or non-specific, rather than one that is too large or extensive in coverage.
When regulation 12(4)(c) applies, you must issue the requester with a formal refusal notice within 20 working days of receipt of the request. At the same time, you must ask the requester to clarify their request and provide them with advice and assistance to help them do so. You must do this to meet your duties under regulation 9(2) of the EIR.
Regulation 9(2) of the EIR states:
Where a public authority decides that an applicant has formulated a request in too general a manner, it shall—
(a) ask the applicant as soon as possible and in any event no later than 20 working days after the date of receipt of the request, to provide more particulars in relation to the request; and
(b) assist the applicant in providing those particulars.
For more information on how you can offer advice and assistance, read our detailed guidance Regulation 9 – Advice and Assistance.
The EIR Code of Practice gives additional guidance on the level of advice and assistance you are expected to provide to a requester. You should be proactive in approaching a requester to offer advice and assistance in clarifying their request.
It benefits both you and the requester to ensure that you fully understand their request.
As soon as the requester provides clarification, a new 20-working day time limit for responding begins.
The words “too general” refer to a request that is:
- too unclear or non-specific for you to identify and locate the information requested, or
- a request that is ambiguous and open to more than one interpretation.
When you receive a request, you should:
- read it objectively and impartially;
- avoid reading into it any meaning which is not in the plain wording;
- avoid assuming that you know what is in the mind of the requester;
- avoid attempting to guess what the requester wants;
- contact the requester as soon as possible to seek clarification when you think a request is unclear or ambiguous.
In ICO decision notice IC-161129-W5R1, the requester asked for the following information from Bristol City Council:
“I would like information on how many people reported a low frequency noise in recent years, say the last 10?
I am actively trying to find a source and this is the data I am missing.”
The council refused the request citing regulation 12(4)(c)(too general a manner) and 12(4)(b)(manifestly unreasonable).
The council explained to the Commissioner that it had suggested to the requester to narrow down the scope of the request, for example to a more specific time period or a particular ward of Bristol. The requester did not reduce the scope of their request. As a result, the council applied regulation 12(4)(c).
However, the Commissioner decided that regulation 12(4)(c) did not apply.
Instead, the Commissioner found that the council was entitled to refuse the request under regulation 12(4)(b), which covers manifestly unreasonable requests.
This was because the council had applied the exception on the basis that the request was too broad, and therefore burdensome, rather than on the basis that it was unclear or ambiguous.
The Commissioner also found that the council had met its obligations under regulation 9(1) to provide advice and assistance by suggesting the requester to refine their request.
As shown in the example above, we consider that the term “too general a manner” only relates to requests for information that are too vague, unclear or non-specific. We distinguish this from requests that may be considered ‘too big’ or relating to extensive amounts of information, which may be covered by regulation 12(4)(b)(manifestly unreasonable).
When considering a request which appears too large, you could consider first the exception in regulation 12(4)(b): Manifestly unreasonable requests.
A ‘neither confirm nor deny’ (‘NCND’) response allows you to respond to a requester by refusing to confirm or deny if you hold the requested information. This applies in cases where confirming or denying if you hold information would – in itself – disclose information which would adversely affect the interest protected by an exception.
An NCND response is not relevant if you are relying on regulation 12(4)(c) to refuse the request.
This is because, under the EIR, you can only consider a neither confirm nor deny response if you are relying on one of the exceptions under regulation 12(5) or on regulation 13(5A).
If a request is formulated in too general a manner, you won’t be able to determine if you can rely on the relevant neither confirm nor deny provisions until you have identified what information the requester is seeking. If the requester submits a fresh clarified request which allows you to do that, you should consider at that stage if you need to consider a neither confirm nor deny response.
If you are satisfied that the request is formulated in too general a manner, to engage regulation 12(4)(c) you must also show that you have complied with your duty to provide advice and assistance under regulation 9.
Regulation 9(1) states that you must provide advice and assistance “so far as it would be reasonable to do so”.
In Decision Notice FER0783541, the Commissioner found that the authority was right to rely on regulation 12(4)(c). This was because the request was formulated in too general a manner and the authority had offered relevant advice and assistance to enable the requester to clarify their request.
The requester had asked Cambridgeshire County Council for information about the legal status of a “vehicle footway crossover and access way”.
The council responded by providing the requester with a plan of the area and asking them to indicate on the plan the precise area they were seeking information about. This was because part of the area described in the request was public highway and part of it was privately owned.
The council argued that, without knowing the exact area the applicant was interested in, they could not respond correctly.
The requester never provided this clarification. As a result, the Commissioner found regulation 12(4)(c) was engaged.
You cannot engage regulation 12(4)(c) unless you can demonstrate you took reasonable steps to assist the requester in clarifying their request. You should do this as soon as you realise you cannot identify what information the requester is asking for and, in any event, within the 20-working day limit for compliance.
In Mersey Tunnels Users Association v Information Commissioner and Halton Borough Council (EA/2009/0001, 24 June 2009), the then Information Rights Tribunal decided that the authority was not entitled to rely on reg 12(4)(c) because it had failed to comply with its duty to provide advice and assistance under regulation 9(2).
Mersey Tunnels Users Association (‘MTUA’) had requested information about a proposal to introduce tolling on an existing bridge and a proposed bridge across the River Mersey.
On appeal, the Council relied on regulation 12(4)(c) of the EIR because request had been formulated in too general a manner.
The council tried to clarify the request after its original refusal notice which had refused the request on different grounds than those claimed on appeal.
As the council had not made attempts to clarify the request when it was received, the Tribunal found that regulation 12(4)(c) was not engaged.
At para. 100, the Tribunal said:
“We note that the council accepts that it did not comply, or even purport to comply, with regulation 9 (the duty to advise and assist) at the time of the request. Instead it is submitted that the council has subsequently complied with this duty such that it can rely on the exception in Regulation 12(4)(c). The council has now contacted MTUA with a view to discussing the request; this was done by letter dated 31 March 2009, almost 3 years after the request was made. We do not consider that there can be any interpretation placed on the exception that would allow a public authority to claim it had complied with its duty under regulation 9 of the EIR in these circumstances.”
The EIR Code of Practice outlines the type of assistance you are expected to offer to requesters when you receive a request which is formulated in too general a manner.
The EIR Code of Practice (hereafter “the Code”) was issued under regulation 16 by the Secretary of State for DEFRA in 2005 to provide “guidance to public authorities as to the practice which it would, in the Secretary of State’s opinion, be desirable for them to follow in connection with the discharge of their functions” under the EIR.
Part III of the code suggests how you could provide appropriate assistance if you receive an unclear request.
The Code states (para. 10 – 11):
10. Appropriate assistance might include:
- providing an outline of the different kinds of information that
might meet the terms of the request;
- providing access to detailed catalogues and indexes, where
these are available, to help the applicant ascertain the nature and extent of the information held by the authority; and
- providing a general response to the request setting out options for further information that could be provided on request
- advising the person that another person or agency (such as a Citizens Advice Bureau) may be able to assist them with the application or make the application on their behalf.
11. This list is not exhaustive and public authorities should be flexible in offering advice and assistance most appropriate to the circumstances of the applicant.
Paragraph 15 of the Code is particularly relevant to regulation 12(4)(c):
“...Where a person finds it difficult to specify very clearly the nature of their request, the public authority should ensure that appropriate assistance is given to enable that person to make a request for information. For example, if a request is formulated in too general a manner the public authority shall, as soon as possible and not later than 20 working days after receipt of the request, ask the applicant to provide more particulars and shall assist them in doing so.”
Regulation 9(3) explains that if you have followed the EIR Code of Practice, you are very likely to have complied with your duty to provide advice and assistance under regulation 9(1).
However, paragraph 11 of the Code makes clear that the list of recommended actions is not exhaustive. If you just follow the steps outlined in the Code, you could still be in breach of regulation 9. In turn, this means you won’t be able to rely on regulation 12(4)(c).
It is your responsibility to decide what advice and assistance would be reasonable and practicable to provide in the circumstances of each case. We expect you to take a proactive approach and in some instances you may need to go beyond the suggestions in the Code.
In the below hypothetical example we explain the type of advice and assistance we expect you to offer to requesters.
Mrs J has made the following request to East Coastal Town Council:
“Please provide me with minutes of all the planning department’s meetings attended by Mr John Smith and the planning documents concerning the Quays development from June, July or August this year.”
The council is not sure which information Mrs J is asking for. It thinks that it could mean any of the following:
- minutes of all planning department meetings John Smith has ever attended and the planning documents concerning the Quays development drafted in July, July or August; or
- minutes of all planning department meetings John Smith attended in June, July or August, plus the planning documents concerning the Quays development drafted in June, July or August; or
- minutes of all planning department meetings John Smith ever attended concerning the Quays development, plus the planning documents concerning the Quays development drafted in June, July or August; or
- minutes of all planning department meetings John Smith attended concerning the Quays development in June, July or August plus the planning documents concerning the Quays development drafted in June, July or August.
The council should go back to Mrs J as soon as possible to provide advice and assistance under regulation 9(1), and issue a refusal notice within 20 working days, citing regulation 12(4)(c). Under regulation 9(2) it should ask her which documents she is interested in, explaining the options available to her and offering her advice and assistance to help her clarify the request. One helpful, proactive approach could be to set out for her all the possible options outlined above.
Once you have refused a request under regulation 12(4)(c) and provided reasonable advice and assistance, you do not need to take any further action until you receive a response from the requester.
If the requester comes back with clarification and you are able to identify the information they want, you should deal with the clarified request as a fresh request and respond within a new 20 working day time limit.
If the requester makes an entirely new request for different information you must handle this as a new request.
If the requester doesn’t agree that the request was unclear, or complains that they did not receive appropriate advice and assistance, you should deal with the complaint about the handling of the original request through your internal review procedure. Sometimes, you may have to deal with both a new request and a complaint about the handling of the original request.
If, even after you have provided reasonable advice and assistance, the requester responds but they are still unable to clarify what information they are seeking, then you will have met your obligations under the EIR in relation to the original request. However, as a matter of good practice, you could respond to the applicant to let them know that their request is still unclear, and you will not be able to deal with it until you receive clarification.
The time limits for asking a requester to clarify a request
You must ask the requester to clarify their request as soon as possible, and in any event no later than 20 working days of receipt of the request.
The effect of regulation 9 on time limits
Regulation 9(4) states that if you have sought clarification of a request, this has an impact on the time limits in other regulations under the EIR:
- regulation 5(2) – the deadline for providing information in response to a request for information;
- regulation 6(2)(a) – the deadline for explaining why the authority is not making information available in the form or format requested; and
- regulation 14(2) – the deadline for issuing a formal refusal notice to the requester.
In all of the above cases, the time limit is treated as being 20 working days after you receive clarification of the request from the requester. In effect, the clarified request is simply treated as a new request.
Benefits of seeking clarification of a request
It is in your own interest as a public authority to seek clarification from the requester when the request is unclear. By doing so, you will avoid wasting time and resources on trying to interpret a request that is ambiguous and open to interpretation. This will also benefit the requester as they will stand a greater chance of receiving a response which meets their needs.
Seeking clarification and providing advice and assistance to requesters from the outset will also help to identify any issues that could escalate into a complaint to the Commissioner.
In the Mersey Tunnels User Association example cited above, the Tribunal highlighted the importance of clarifying a request as soon as possible:
“It is of concern that at no stage did the council ask the MTUA to confirm the scope of the request or exactly what information was being sought. This appears to us to be the cause of all the subsequent difficulties that have arisen in this case and is a real failure on the part of the council when dealing with a request” [para. 52]
Like all EIR exceptions, regulation 12(4)(c) is subject to the public interest test. However, we recognise that it is difficult to conduct the public interest test when the request is unclear and you’re unsure about what the applicant is after.
Therefore, if the request in unclear and you have provided meaningful advice and assistance, the Commissioner takes the position that the public interest in maintaining the regulation 12(4)(c) exception will outweigh the public interest in disclosing what may be the wrong information.
Under FOIA there is no exemption for unclear requests. However, when you receive an unclear or ambiguous FOIA request, you must also provide advice and assistance to the requester under section 16. You must go back to the requester to ask for clarification.
You should contact the requester as soon as possible and in any event no later than the 20 working day statutory time limit for responding.
Under section 1(3) of FOIA, once you have informed the requester that you require further clarification, you are not under any further obligation to respond until the requester has given that clarification.
For more information on this, read our detailed guidance on Interpreting and clarifying requests under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR).
- Regulation 2(1) - What is environmental information?
- Information you hold for the purposes of the EIR
- Regulation 9 – Advice and Assistance
- Regulation 12(4)(b): Manifestly unreasonable requests
- Interpreting and clarifying requests under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR)
- When to refuse to confirm or deny holding information
In addition to our guidance, we also recommend you to read the