Wednesday, March 29, 2006

More Advice on Freedom of Information

Please let me know if I’ve got this wrong, but it sounds as if the big reason why local authorities are reluctant to give out information on empty properties is liability.

In the back of local authorities minds when considering requests is the worry that if they give out a list of addresses of empty properties the information might fall into the hands of somebody who misuses it? Possible scenarios might include a property from the list being vandalised, having architectural features stolen or being squatted. If any of these were to happen the owner of the property might claim that problems arose because the local authority made the whereabouts and occupation of the property known to the perpetrators. Potentially this might open up civil claims against the local authority.

I have taken advice and views on this issue from several experts including solicitors and Freedom of information officers. The following is a summary of their views

In order for a claim against a local authority to be successful, the claimant would need to prove a causal link between the information being disclosed and the consequent outcome. The claimant would also need to prove that the local authority was either negligent or wilfully connived in the outcome.

Common sense suggests that theft and vandalism are often opportunistic crimes and it is perhaps a little hard to imagine a vandal requesting a list of properties from a local authority before chosing one and going out to vandalise it. Squatting is a more tangible risk. But even if this were to happen the causal link and negligence tests are quite hard for a claimant to prove. Empty properties get vandalised and squatted all the time without any assistance from the local authority.

A sensible precaution would be to minimise the risks by applying some checks and balances when giving out information. These might include:

Not proactively publishing the list e.g. on an open part of the website

Requiring contact information from those requesting the information prior to making it available.

Issuing the information only to those who agree to conditions of use. These might include:
They agree to keep the information purely for their own use and not pass it on to others.
They agree to only use the information for specific purposes e.g. negotiating a sale with the owner.
Of course, even if a local authority were to apply all of these checks and balances you could not be 100% sure that a claim would not be made against you. Indeed it would not preclude the possibility of a claim being successful. But it does appear as if the risk would be very small. My view is that the potential benefits would outweigh the risk. But as somebody pointed out to me last month that’s easy for me to say because it isn’t my risk.

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