Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The Dog It Was That Died

The sad story of Lennox, the Belfast pitbull, turns out to have Freedom of Information implications. Who knew?

Lennox, a pit-bull type (nobody seems to know exactly what) was impounded as violent and dangerous by Belfast City Council in 2010 and was assessed as too dangerous to be kept. Ordered to be put down, Lennox was supported by his owners, their friends, and eventually a world-wide campaign to save him. The courts even became involved. But to no avail. Lennox was put down in July:

BBC: Pit bull-type dog Lennox put down, council confirms

Over at What Do They Know, in August a requester asked the Council for 'the names and locations of all sites that are used for the euthanization and cremation of siezed dogs in Belfast starting from January 2009 up to and including all current facilites.'

That ought to be a very straightforward request for the location of local authority facilities. But not after the Lennox story. The request was rejected as 'vexatious'. This is a rare process, usually used only where a requester writes abusively, or demands information with an obvious attempt to irritate, or engages in a continuous correspondence without purpose.

In this case, the correspondent had only written once before, demanding on 14 July to know why the cremated remains had not been returned to the family:

You denied a child the right of closure after two years of hoping her dog was returned. How are you able to justify that?
The response only arrived on 11 October, with apologies for the delay 'caused by the unprecedented and enormous volume of correspondence, including freedom of information (FOI) requests, that Belfast City Council received on this subject.' It explained that the remains had, in fact, been returned to the family.

A second request in this circumstance is hardly vexatious, especially as it was a plain request for information. But there is a background to this, as the final response - published after an internal review reversed the original one - shows.

No issue in Northern Ireland politics or society appears to have generated an enthusiasm for information transparency on anything like this level. What Do They Know features at least 20 Lennox-related requests, and the Council appear to have been taken aback by this, rejecting most of them as vexatious - a panic measure, it seems.

The reason seems to be the level of anger the case raised. As the BBC report points out, council staff were threatened with violence and one councillor received a death threat. In the circumstances, the Council decided to circle the wagons. In this case, the 'vexatious' response was withdrawn, but the locations of the cremation site has still been withheld - under Section 38 (1)(b) - because it was feared this would 'endanger the safety of a individual'. That's a rare exemption, and I've only seen it used once - in keeping secret the locations of animal testing research in universities.

Justified? Possibly. Perhaps we ought to call it 'the Lennox exemption'.

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