The ICO exists to empower you through information.

A requester may be confused or aggrieved if you suddenly switch from complying with their requests to refusing them as vexatious without any warning. This, in turn, increases the likelihood that they will complain about how you have handled their request.

For this reason, it is good practice to consider whether a more conciliatory approach would practically address the problem, before you choose to refuse the request. You should focus on trying to get the requester to understand the need to moderate their approach and appreciate the consequences of their request(s). An approach which looks like a threat is unlikely to succeed.

However, we accept that you need to use your judgement when deciding whether to engage with a particular requester in this way. Some requesters will be prepared to enter into some form of dialogue with you. However, others may be aggrieved to learn that you are even considering refusing their request under section 14(1) or the implication that they are vexatious. Indeed, approaching these requesters and asking them to moderate their requests could provoke the very reaction that you are trying to avoid.

Therefore, before deciding whether to take a conciliatory approach, you may find it helpful to look back at your organisation’s past dealings with the requester to try and gauge how they might respond.

If past history suggests that the requester is likely to escalate the matter whether or not you take a conciliatory approach, then it is difficult to see what would be gained by engaging with that requester further.

Similarly, if you believe you have already reached the stage where you have gone as far as is practical to accommodate the requester, and those efforts have been to no avail, then there seems to be little value in attempting any further conciliation.

Allow the requester an opportunity to change their behaviour

You could try writing to the requester to outline your concerns about the way they have framed their previous requests, and set out what they should do differently to ensure that you can deal with further requests.

For example, if you are unhappy about the tone of previous requests, then you might advise the requester that you are still prepared to accept further requests, but only on condition that they moderate their language.

When outlining your concerns, you should focus on the impact of the requests, rather than the behaviour of the requester himself, whenever possible. Labelling a requester as ‘obsessive’, ‘unreasonable’ or ‘aggressive’ may only worsen relations and cause further disputes.

This can also serve as a ‘final warning’. In effect, you have given the requester notice that you may refuse as vexatious any future requests that are framed in a similar way.

Refer the requester to the ICO’s ‘Your Data Matters’ webpages

Our webpages for the public include some advice for requesters on how to word their requests to get the best result. They are aimed at the general public and provide guidance on how to use section 1 rights responsibly and effectively. If you are concerned that an individual’s requests may become vexatious it may be worth referring them to these webpages, and advising that future requests are less likely to be refused if framed in accordance with these guidelines.

You can view the relevant section ‘How should I word my request to get the best result?’ on the 'How to access information from a public body' page of our site.

How to handle unclear requests

As discussed earlier, you are not under any obligation to provide advice and assistance in response to a request which is vexatious. However, sometimes part of the problem is that the requester’s correspondence is hard to follow and you are therefore unsure what, if any, information they are requesting. Then, you might want to consider whether you could more appropriately resolve the problem by providing the requester with guidance on how to reframe their request.

This approach may be particularly helpful for lengthy correspondence that contains a confusing mixture of questions, complaints and other content, or is otherwise incoherent or illegible.

If the problem is that you are genuinely unable to determine what information the requester is seeking because of how the request is phrased, you should consider the provisions of section 1(3). Under that section, where you reasonably require further information in order identify or locate the requested information, you are required to inform the requester of the problem so that they have the opportunity to provide further details. In these circumstances, it makes sense to also consider what advice and assistance you could provide to overcome the problem. If the requester fails to provide the necessary clarification, you are not required to deal with the request.