The freedom of information act (FOIA) became law in the UK in November 2000, and it was fully implemented from the beginning of 2005.

FOIA makes “provision for the disclosure of information held by public authorities or by persons providing services for them.” Anyone making a request for information from any public body in the UK is entitled to be told whether it exists and, if it does, to be sent that information within 20 working days.

That is the basic principle behind “freedom of information”. It is a powerful one, of great potential use to companies, newspapers or other media, campaigners, academics or anyone wanting to find out information. This is your “right to know”, but FOIA is subject to several exemptions, including:

In addition, Scotland has its own freedom of information act, FOISA. Besides FOIA and FOISA, environmental information can be obtained in the UK under the environmental information regulations (EIR), which are generally less restrictive than the “freedom of information” acts.

Individuals can obtain information about themselves, including health records, under the data protection act. Personal data, as defined in the data protection act, can be obtained from public bodies as well as many companies and other organisations.

In some circumstances, health records of late relatives/friends can be obtained from health professionals and institutions under the access to health records act. You would probably have such rights if you were the immediate next of kin or had power of attorney. People can also obtain medical reports written on them by a clinician, such as a GP, for insurance or employment purposes, under the access to medical reports act.

Anyone can lodge “freedom of information” or other “open-access” requests. However, “freedom of information” and open-access laws, their interpretation and the procedures are complex, and exercising your “right to know” often entails protracted correspondence. The FOIA Centre helps you navigate the complexities and takes on the bureaucracy for you. It is akin to the searches undertaken by conveyance solicitors for house buyers. Anyone can do the searches, but it is best left to a specialist to ensure they are carried out effectively and, as is often necessary for FOIA and other open-access requests, monitored and pursued. The FOIA Centre brings together a wealth of knowledge and breadth of experience of “freedom of information” and open-access provisions.

FOIA is a powerful piece of legislation that gives everyone a statutory, albeit limited, “right to know”. Our advice is: if you are seeking information, try “freedom of information”. And make use of the knowledge and experience of the FOIA Centre to make the most of “freedom of information” and other open-access provisions.

One of the strengths of FOIA is that it applies very widely...