A Freedom of Information request sought from Government Departments and certain public bodies is seen as a necessary tool for the citizen seeking accountability and transparency in public life. The Freedom of Information (FOI) Act has the underlying principles of ensuring that decisions taken by public bodies are open to public scrutiny and that citizens also have a right to know what information is held about them by State bodies. The full list of bodies that are subject to the terms of the Act are available at the website of the Office of the Information Commissionerwww.oic.gov.ie.
Unfortunately, like asking for a pay rise, the corollary of request is not receipt, and this basic exploration of the legislation will reveal that many obstacles remain to full disclosure. “In the public interest” is the often quoted paradoxical reason for denying public access.
How do I go about making a request?
It is essential that any request clearly states that pursuant to the FOI Act and that adequate information is supplied so that the actual record required is identified. This will literally save you money. Whereas the set fee for a request is €15, there is no fee for accessing your personal information. If your request involves considerable search and retrieval, or copying of records, there is a fee payable per hour of €20.95 and a copy charge of 4 cent per page.
You must receive an acknowledgement within 10 working days and the actual decision on the request within 20 days.
What can I ask for?
Any electronic or documentary record created after 21st April 1998 from a Government Department or Public Body, subject to the statutory exemptions, or any personal information held by a public body relating to the person requesting the information, regardless of when the record was created.
What are the exemptions and grounds for refusals?
This is the area giving rise to most disputes on FOI, and not without reason . A basic perusal of the grounds, as contained below, shows how problematic it can be to get full disclosure. Part 3 of the 1997 Act, as amended, lists measures which are considered necessary to protect key areas of government activity, court matters and third party information of a confidential nature. Amongst the many areas are: deliberations of Government at cabinet level or between government and senior civil servants, legal advice, public safety and law enforcement, commercial sensitivity, foreign affairs, confidential information, economic interests of the state and other public bodies etc. The list goes on and a short article like this could not address the many issues that arise.
Can I appeal a refusal?
The public body may refuse the request on any of the numerous grounds set out in the legislation, but crucially the communication must contain the reason for the refusal and the element of public interest that was taken into account when considering the refusal. It must also mention the section of the Act upon which the refusal was grounded. It should also give you further information on as how to appeal internally within the organisation. This is labelled an “internal review” and does not come cheaply. It costs €75 for the application but no cost if the information sought is personal. The decision must be made within four weeks. It is necessary to first seek an internal review before an application for review can be made to the Office of the Information Commissioner. This decision can then be sent for review to the Information Commissioner usually at a will cost of €150.
What is the function of the Office Information Commissioner?
The Office of the Information Commissioner is a public appointment tasked to give an independent review of the refusals of disclosures by public bodies. The designated Commissioner can affirm, vary or annul the decision and make further decisions relating to the request as appropriate. The time limit for making an appeal is two weeks from the decision of the public body. Appeals from the Commissioner are direct to the High Court.