Aside from police records, an incredible number of other types of public records are available under the Freedom of Information Act and similar laws in countries around the world. To be competitive in their field, private investigators must remain aware of the full spectrum of information resources available for free or at a price. In the past decade, the police have also become more adept at using electronic databases in criminal cases. The do-it-yourself investigator has access to many of the same public records and is disadvantaged only by a lack of familiarity and practice. In other words, it will take longer for you to locate information, but it can be done, often at little or no cost.
If you know what information you need but aren’t sure which public records might contain relevant details, then a bit of preliminary study is in order. You can learn how to make use of freely available records and publications by reading about the experiences of other researchers and investigators. Chances are there’s a trade journal or blog devoted to discussion of the very type of search you’re conducting. Find out what keywords are used by those already familiar with your subject; knowing the jargon will help you more quickly pinpoint the best resources available to you.
Narrowing Your SearchA2A.org.uk allows you to search for information about public records that can be found in local libraries, record offices, universities, museums, and other institutions in England and Wales.
BRB Publications is a large US publisher of public records sourcebooks. Its websites offer free directories that can quickly link you to open records in the US.
FamilyRecords.gov.uk is a website designed to help you find government records for family history research. It includes guides to help you navigate the many sources of public information on the Internet.
Genuki.org.uk is a free online directory of worldwide genealogy resources submitted by volunteers.
Proni.gov.uk is the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.
Searchsystems.net is a commercial directory of public records available via the Internet in countries around the world. You may not need to pay for the company’s listings. Instead, simply search the directory for your topic and then enter the name of any relevant organisation in a search engine to go directly to the source of the information you need.
Statistics.gov.uk can help if you’re looking for survey or census data to support a civil claim.
Freedom of Information RequestsThe Freedom of Information Act is effective throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland—and a very similar statute exists in Scotland. The law requires any public body to disclose the data you request, as long as the information is not lawfully exempted. Requests for environmental information are also covered by the Environmental Information Regulations.
You’ll need to ascertain whether the information you need is available through an online publication scheme or in a format that will require you to submit a Freedom of Information request to the public body that holds the record. First, look at the appropriate public agency’s website for routinely issued government reports that might cover your topic. The Freedom of Information Act does not require a public body to respond to a request for information that has already been made public. The website for the Office of Public Sector Information can help you learn where to locate many types of government publications.
To make a request under the Freedom of Information Act, simply write a letter or send an e-mail to the public body you believe possesses the information, explain what you need and include your name and address. If the agency uses a form designed specifically for Freedom of Information requests, the form will help you clarify your inquiry and expedite the processing of your request. Remember to indicate whether you would like to obtain information in hard copy, in digital format, or by inspecting it in person.
The law restricts access to certain information and documents. Before making a trip to a government office or other public agency to conduct research, make sure the records you want will be available when you arrive. You might need to make an appointment to view documents. Take along some coins or cash to cover any photocopying or parking fees. A camera or camera phone can come in handy, if you’re permitted to photograph documents of interest. You may be required to show proof of your identity before obtaining certain kinds of records or being issued an official access card or ticket. If you plan to visit the National Archives, its website provides a visitor’s guide to read in advance.
Appealing a DenialAdvice about compliance with the Freedom of Information Act is available on the Information Commissioner’s website. If a public body withholds information you request, you can file an appeal with the Information Commissioner.
If you’re dissatisfied with the result of your appeal to the Information Commissioner, then you can take your appeal to the Information Tribunal. There is no information tribunal in Scotland, where the ultimate decision on whether records can be released rests with the Scottish Information Commissioner.