NHS trusts have been urged to learn from a primary care trust that became the first organisation to be threatened with High Court action for failing to comply with the Freedom of Information Act.

Information commissioner Richard Thomas branded Hounslow PCT’s records management “inadequate” and its conduct “totally unacceptable” following a two-year battle to extract information about the care of a former nursing home resident.

His uncharacteristically strong words came as he issued the PCT with its third formal notice ordering it to supply documents. The latest notice also asks for names of senior staff.

Mr Thomas said: “The FOI Act must be properly implemented by public bodies - it is not a voluntary scheme that organisations can dip in and out of. I consider that other health trusts and public authorities could usefully learn lessons from this case.”

The documents relate to a request by the son-in-law of a late care home resident who sent an FOI request in February 2006 for all correspondence between the PCT, nursing home, a doctor, the Metropolitan Police and the west London coroner. The PCT did not respond within the permitted 20 working days and the case was referred to the Information Commissioner’s Office the following month.

Requests by the commissioner were also ignored. On several occasions the trust claimed documents were unavailable, only to find them subsequently.

In July 2007 the commissioner served draft High Court papers on the PCT, the first time this has happened under the FOI law. The papers stated that the PCT was in contempt of court.

Hounslow PCT then provided some of the requested documents, but some information was missing, with no explanation. The PCT also wrongly used data protection as an excuse to withhold the names of managers.

Hounslow PCT director of corporate affairs Keith Dickinson said the trust had “learned a difficult lesson” and was updating information management systems.

The case “involved a request for many documents and handwritten notes, some 10 years old, that were held by an area health authority at a remote site elsewhere in London, until it was disbanded in 2002,” he said.

For more analysis, see this week’s leader.