24 September 2016

Academy Bosses Threaten to Sue Parents Over Facebook Comments

A group of parents have been threatened with legal action after posting comments critical of a Leeds school on a social media website.

The parents concerned, who have children attending The Morley Academy, were engaged in what they considered a private conversation on the "Gorse Academy Society of Parents" Facebook group when they made the comments.

The Morley Academy, which is judged to be an "outstanding" school by Ofsted, is part of the eight-schools The Gorse Academies Trust.

You can read more background information to this story in an earlier Telegraph article.

The circumstances of this disagreement are of great interest to us. It appears, on the face of things, that The Gorse Academies Trust is using the threat of litigation as a means of dampening what might be entirely justified parental criticism.

Even if the criticism is not entirely justified the parents should, in our opinion, have the right to express their opinions about the Trust's schools. Expressing an opinion, believe it or not, is not (necessarily) the same as defamation, despite any inference to the contrary.

Using the Freedom of Information Act 2000, we are currently seeking additional information from the Trust. We first emailed the Trust for information on 9th June 2016. The 20 working day time-limit for a response ticked by and the Trust failed to even acknowledge our request. We sent the Trust a reminder, which again went unanswered.

On 1st August 2016, having then been stonewalled by the Trust for a period of almost two months, we decided to complain to the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO). Last week the ICO contacted the Trust and asked it to send us either a response or valid refusal notice within 5 working days.

Eventually, on the sixth working day after the ICO's intervention, a lawyer acting on behalf of the Trust, Nick Collins of Weightmans LLP, sent us an email effectively saying "the Trust won't be responding because all of the information requested is legally professionally privileged and therefore exempt from disclosure". According to earlier reports, Mr Collins is the same lawyer that wrote to the parents accused of making critical Facebook postings.

The timing of Mr Collins' email gives the distinct impression that the Trust only bothered to get in touch with us (in a manner of speaking) because the ICO told it to.

In his email Mr Collins helpfully confirmed that The Gorse Academies Trust had, indeed, received our original request for information on the 9th June 2016. That being the case, there is little doubt that the Trust chose to simply ignore our request and is therefore in breach of section 10 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. 

We note that Mr Collins' email included no recognition of or apology for the Trust's breach of section 10. We get the distinct impression that the Trust doesn't do apologies, even when it is clearly in the wrong.

We are sure readers will notice a degree of irony attached to the fact that at the same time as threatening parents with legal action, the Trust has failed to comply with its legal obligation to respond to our information request.

Even now, with Mr Collins having made the Trust's intention to withhold the requested information clear, we have still not received a valid refusal notice to our request in accordance with section 17 of the Act.

There are flaws in the Trust's assertion that the requested information is exempt from disclosure. In our experience, having submitted hundreds of information requests and successfully challenged dozens of refusals with the ICO, there is usually some information that can be disclosed, even if that's in a redacted format.

Even if there is some merit in the Trust's reliance on the legal professional privilege exemption, it should have conducted a public interest test to weigh up its decision to apply that exemption. Given the Trust's knee-jerk correspondence the moment the ICO started sniffing about, we seriously doubt such a public interest test has been conducted.

In our opinion, The Gorse Academies Trust is hiding behind the legal professional privilege exemption because it is the easiest and most expedient option with the ICO now involved. It is pretty clear, given the Trust's failure to respond to our request, that it lacks either the knowledge, systems or expertise needed to handle information requests in a lawful and effective manner. Or maybe, given some weight to the parents' Facebook opinions, the "egos" at the Trust thought it wasn't worth wasting their valuable time responding to little, insignificant people like us.

Either way, we're not satisfied and we will be pursuing our information request to the fullest extent possible. You can be confident that we'll publish the eventual outcome here on FOI By Proxy.

In the meantime we invite the parents of children attending schools within The Gorse Academies Trust to get in touch with us if they have any information that may assist our enquiries and subsequent reporting. You will find our email address on the sidebar.

Update (29/4/2017): We have now written about further developments in this case.

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