Chapter 9: Requests and resources

Purpose and name of requester

Requester’s purpose

Currently requesters do not have to disclose their purpose in seeking information, nor the use to which they propose to put it. In some cases of course they disclose it voluntarily, and in others the purpose is obvious from the identity of the requester – a journalist for instance – or the nature of the request. But there is no obligation to disclose the requester’s purpose. It has been pointed out to us that knowledge of the requester’s purpose can assist the agency in several ways:

(a)in determining whether the request is vexatious;

(b)in determining whether release would be in the public interest;

(c)in determining whether charging would be appropriate;

(d)in handling an urgent request;

(e)in helping to refine an overbroad request.

It might even be said that one of the withholding grounds in the OIA assumes a knowledge of purpose: under section 9(2)(k)285 information may be withheld if that is necessary to “prevent the disclosure or use of official information for improper gain or improper advantage”.

We have wondered whether the Act should require requesters to state their purpose, but in the issues paper decided against this for several reasons. First, freedom of information is an important right. It would be diminished if the impression were to be given that its importance varies according to purpose. Secondly, it might induce agencies to disclose information less readily than required, if a stated purpose was one of which they did not approve. Thirdly, it is likely that some requesters would not be frank in their disclosure of purpose. Indeed, those with malicious or mischievous motives would hardly be likely to disclose them. Fourthly, it is difficult to see how requesters could be held to their disclosed purpose once the information was in their possession.

Most of the submissions on the issues paper agreed. We therefore recommend that requesters of official information should not be required to state their purpose.

However it is undoubtedly true that knowledge of purpose can sometimes be useful to an agency, in particular when it is assisting a requester to refine a request which is over-broad or insufficiently particular. In that situation requesters will generally volunteer it anyway. Nor should agencies be afraid to inquire about purpose where knowledge of it would help decision-making. Several agencies which made submissions to the issues paper made that point.

In its 1997 review the Law Commission recommended that it be enacted that a requester may, but is not obliged to, specify their purpose.286  We agree with the substance of this, but now think that such advice might belong better in guidance for requesters than in the Act itself. Treasury made that suggestion in its submission, and we agree with it.

R47The Acts should not require requesters of official information to state their purpose. However, guidance for requesters should make it clear that it can be useful for agencies to know the purpose of a request and that they may be asked for it.

Requester’s name

We have had it suggested that anonymous requests should not be entertained, and that requesters should be obliged to give their real names. This would help agencies to identify their persistent requesters, and would also be a demonstration of good faith on the part of the requester.

A great majority of agencies submitted that real names should be provided, and a number of people who fell into the “requester” category themselves (including one media organisation) agreed.

However we do not detect that this is a major issue at the moment. The huge majority of requesters already do give their names – simply so that they can be communicated with. There is also nothing to stop an agency asking those who do not, although a refusal to answer would not be grounds for the agency to refuse to supply the requested information. It is also acknowledged that if names were required it would be difficult to detect whether a name supplied was a pseudonym, or whether the person making the request was doing so on behalf of someone else.

We have decided to make no recommendation on this matter.

OIA, s 9(2)(k); LGOIMA, s 7(2)(j).

Law Commission, above n 274, at [73].