Case number: 050305
Case 050305. "Origins" records - access to records giving the age of the requester's grandmother when she gave birth to the requester's father in 1907 - personal information - section 28(1) - whether information of the same kind in respect of individuals is available to the general public - section 28(2)(c) - access to personal information of deceased person by a next of kin - section 28(6)(b) - whether the information has the necessary quality of confidence - section 26(1)(a) - whether disclosure of the woman's age to her granddaughter would constitute a breach of an equitable duty of confidence - section 26((1)(b).
The requester, Ms. X, sought records held by the Rotunda Hospital relating to her grandmother (EB) who gave birth to Ms X's father (GB) in 1907. GB died in 1990. Ms X supplied copies of her father's birth and death certificates. The Hospital confirmed that particulars in its registers corresponded with the information in the birth certificate. The review was concerned solely with the question of whether the Hospital was justified in its decision to refuse access to the two records (from the Labour Ward Book and the Porter's Lodge Book) which contained an entry for the age (in 1907) of EB. In its refusal of access, the Hospital relied on section 28(1) - personal information and section 26 - information given in confidence.
The Commissioner commented on the fact that it had been necessary to undertake a detailed and lengthy review, involving complex legal arguments, when it might have been expected that common sense would prevail and that the age of EB could have been conveyed to Ms X, if necessary outside of the FOI Acts, when the request was first made in 2005. She found that, while the age of the person may constitute "personal information" within the meaning of the FOI Acts, the exemption at section 28(1) does not apply where "information of the same kind as that contained in the record in respect of individuals generally, or a class of individuals that is, having regard to all the circumstances, of significant size, is available to the general public." [section 28(2)(c)].
From enquiries made with the General Register Office (GRO), which operates the system of registration of deaths, births and marriages, it is clear that, once a searcher has a name, information on the age of any individual is available through that individual's birth certificate and, if that individual is married, also through the marriage certificate; and if the individual has died, through the death certificate. Such information is part of a public record which is accessible to all. The Commissioner recognised that the level of effort required to trace any individual's birth details will vary depending on the level of information held but, in principle it will be possible to trace an individual's date of birth through one or other of the GRO's registration certificates. Thus, section 28(2)(c) operates to dis-apply section 28(1) in this case. It was not necessary therefore to address the public interest arguments put forward by the Hospital in favour of withholding the age of EB in 1907. Although she did not have to make a finding on the matter, the Commissioner said that it is likely also that the records would fall to be released under section 28(6)(b) of the FOI Act to the requester as a next of kin of EB.
In relation to section 26 of the FOI Act, the Commissioner did not accept that, in the circumstances of this case, the information could be treated as having the necessary quality of confidence. She found that neither section 26(1)(a) nor section 26(1)(b) applied. She further said that, if it had been necessary to make a finding in relation to the public interest, on balance, she would have found that the public interested favoured disclosure of her grandmother's age in 1907 to the requester.
The Commissioner annulled the decision of the Hospital and directed it to release the parts of the records at issue.
Our Reference: 050305
Dear Ms X
I refer to your application under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, for a review of the decision of the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin (the Hospital) on your request for access to records relating to your grandmother.
I regret the delay which has arisen in dealing with your application and I appreciate that this has been frustrating for you. Unfortunately, due to the high volume of applications received in the first few years of operation of the FOI Act, this Office built up considerable arrears of work. The delay was compounded by the fact that, as my staff explained to you, difficult legal issues arise in this and other cases before me where the records of deceased persons are involved. The Hospital says that the issues raised in this type of case are not confined to those directly involved and that consideration should be given to "the wider affected group". However, at this stage, I consider that I am obliged to give you the formal, binding, decision on your application to which you are entitled.
On 22 July 2005, you made an FOI request for information about your grandmother, the late EB, who gave birth to your father, the late GB, in the Rotunda Hospital on 11 May, 1907.
On 16 August 2005, the Hospital informed you that a search of its records had confirmed an entry in the Labour Ward Book for 1907 showing an EB having given birth to a male child on 11 May 1907. In addition, the Hospital told you that it had located an entry in the "Porter's Lodge Book" (held in the National Archive) which also related to EB's admission in 1907. It also told you that the address in its records matched that shown on your father's birth certificate. The Hospital's decision was to refuse access to those records on the basis that their release would involve the disclosure of personal information of an individual other than yourself (section 28(1)) and that the records concerned information given in confidence (section 26(1)(a)).
The Hospital further informed you that, since no "maternity record" for your grandmother was located in the Hospital's archive, your request in relation to such a record was being refused under section 10(1)(a) of the FOI Act on the basis that the record does not exist or cannot be found after all reasonable steps have been taken to ascertain its whereabouts. The Hospital enclosed a list of contact points for "family tracing" which it considered might be of assistance to you.
On 25 August 2005, you applied for an internal review of the Hospital's decision. On 16 September 2005, you were notified that the internal reviewer had upheld the original decision. You made your application for review to my Office on 28 September 2005. You submitted copies of your father's birth and death certificates.
In reviewing this case, I have had regard to the following:
It is important to note that EB's age in 1907 (and not her date of birth) is the only "new" information which you would receive if the records involved were to be released. This review is concerned solely with the question of whether the Hospital is justified, under the FOI Act, in its decision to refuse access to the two records (from the Labour Ward Book and the Porter's Lodge Book) which contain an entry for the age (in 1907) of EB. As my staff have clarified for you, the records provided to my Office contain limited information about Ms B and do not include her date of birth. You appear to have accepted the Hospital's position that no additional records can be found concerning your grandmother and your father's birth. Accordingly, this review will focus on the two records identified. I note also that you have agreed to exclude from this review other details which are in the records.
I feel obliged to comment on the fact that it has proven necessary to undertake a detailed and lengthy review, involving complex legal arguments, in order to determine whether you should be told the age of your father's mother when she gave birth to him in 1907. I note that your father died in 1990. One might have expected that common sense would prevail and that this information could have been conveyed to you, if necessary outside of the complexities of the FOI Acts, when the request was first made in 2005. Regrettably, this did not happen and it is now necessary to finalise the review through the issue of this formal, binding decision.
At the outset, also, I wish to draw attention to the provision at section 34(12)(b) of the FOI Act which provides that, in a review, "a decision to refuse to grant a request under section 7 shall be presumed not to have been justified unless the head concerned shows to the satisfaction of the Commissioner that the decision was justified." The effect of this provision is to place the onus on the public body concerned to displace the inherent assumption in the FOI Act that records held by public bodies will be released where sought under the Act.
The Hospital's decision was that access to those records should be refused on the basis that their release would involve the disclosure of personal information of an individual other than yourself [section 28(1) of the FOI Act]. It also found that the information contained in the records had been obtained in confidence and that the records are also exempt from release on this basis [section 26(1)(a)]. In its submissions to my Office the Hospital further cited section 26(1)(b) in support of its decision.
It would appear that the age of an individual may constitute "personal information" as defined at section 2(1) of the FOI Act. Item (vi) in the list of items included in the definition of "personal information" reads: "information relating to the religion, age, sexual orientation or marital status of the individual". While it is included in the list of examples within the definition, I take it that these examples must also satisfy one or other of the overarching prior requirements:
"... information about an identifiable individual that -
(a) would, in the ordinary course of events, be known only to the individual or members of the family, or friends, of the individual, or
(b) is held by a public body on the understanding that it would be treated by it as confidential,"
If it is the case that information on the age of an individual constitutes personal information, then a record which discloses such information is, on the face of it, exempt by virtue of section 28(1) of the FOI Act. However, this exemption does not apply where "information of the same kind as that contained in the record in respect of individuals generally, or a class of individuals that is, having regard to all the circumstances, of significant size, is available to the general public." [section 28(2)(c)].
The General Register Office (GRO) operates the regime of registration of deaths, births and marriages in this country. From enquiries made by my staff with the GRO, it is clear that information on the age of any individual is available through that individual's birth certificate and, if that individual is married, also through the marriage certificate; and if the individual has died, through the death certificate. It is clear that the information contained in the GRO's certificates is part of a public record which is accessible to all. The level of effort required to trace any individual's birth details, including date of birth, will vary depending on the level of information already held by the searcher; but where the searcher has a name, in principle it will be possible to trace that individual's date of birth through one or other of the GRO's registration certificates. Clearly, where the searcher has information in addition to the name, such as county or region of birth or the probable age range of the individual, the search process will be easier.
When my Office put this point to the Hospital, it commented in response that in many of the "tracing" cases, individuals who have names and other details do not have enough information to identify the "correct information" from the General Register Office. I accept that this may well be the case. However, any difficulty in accessing the information does not take away from the fact that the ages of individuals whose births, marriages or deaths were registered is available to the general public as outlined above. It seems to me that such availability satisfies the requirement of section 28(2)(c). The Hospital suggests that individuals might be advised to use the GRO service as an alternative to seeking "the confidential records of a Hospital" under the FOI Act. Given your entitlement under the FOI Act to seek access to records held by the Hospital; and given that, following your application to me, I am required under the FOI Act to review the Hospital's decision and affirm, vary or annul it, the option of finalising the review by referring you to the GRO or other source is not available to me.
In the light of the above, I find that section 28(2)(c) applies in relation to the age of EB. This has the effect of undoing the exemption at section 28(1) and it not, therefore, necessary for me to make findings on the other exceptions to section 28(1) contained within that section.
The Hospital made detailed submissions in the course of the review. I do not address all of the points made in view of my finding that section 28(2)(c) has the effect of dis-applying the provisions of section 28(1) of the FOI Act in this case.
At the time of your FOI request, the decision makers must have known from the date of the records that it was unlikely that your grandmother would have been alive in 2005. In the course of this review, the Hospital accepted that the records at issue are those of a deceased person. There are specific provisions within the FOI Act for dealing with records of deceased people. However, neither the original decision maker, nor the decision maker at internal review stage, dealt with these specific provisions which are contained at section 28(6)(b) of the FOI Act. After my staff had raised the issue with the Hospital, it accepted that your grandmother is dead. Its position is that a next of kin does not have an automatic right of access to the personal records of a deceased person. The Hospital then appeared to argue that release under section 28(6)(b) is possible only where such release is found to be in the public interest following the application of the section 28(5)(a) public interest test. It appeared to argue that the public interest test can somehow be employed to prevent the release of records which would otherwise be releasable. In fact the opposite is the case. The relevance of section 28(5)(a) is that it provides the potential to release, in the public interest, a record disclosing personal information which is otherwise exempt by virtue of section 28(1). Accordingly, I consider that section 28(5)(a) does not fall to be considered in this case and I do not intend to deal further with the public interest arguments advanced by the Hospital in favour of withholding the records.
In the course of the review, my staff brought to your attention and to that of the Hospital my views on the provisions of the FOI Act and regulations (SI No 47 of 1999) in relation to access to records of deceased persons. I have since made a number of decisions (see, for example, Case No.: 040149 - Mr X and the Health Service Executive - published on www.oic.gov.ie) directing the release to next of kin of records containing personal information relating to a deceased person; this decision sets out the construction of the legislation which formed the basis of my decisions in those cases. My conclusion was that, where a next of kin seek records relating to a deceased person, he or she will generally have an entitlement to gain access to such records within the terms of section 28(6)(b) of the FOI Act and of article 3(1)(b)(iii) of the 1999 Regulations and subject to there not being any other statutory exemption which prohibits release of the records. Given my finding above that section 28(1) does not apply in this particular case [dis-applied by virtue of section 28(2)(c)], it is unnecessary to address this issue here in any detail. However I think it is relevant to note that, even if the section 28(1) exemption were found to apply, it is likely that the records relating to your late grandmother would fall to be released to you under the FOI Act in accordance with the section 28(6)(b) provisions.
In the Hospital's submissions, the confidential nature of the records is referred to throughout. I believe it is appropriate to consider whether the information at issue i.e. the age of your grandmother in 1907, may be protected under the FOI Act on the basis of confidentiality. Section 26(1) of the FOI Act states that:
"Subject to the provisions of this section, a head shall refuse to grant a request under section 7 if-
(a) the record concerned contains information given to a public body in confidence and on
the understanding that it would be treated by it as confidential (including such information as aforesaid that a person was required by law, or could have been required by the body pursuant to law, to give to the body) and, in the opinion of the head, its disclosure would be likely to prejudice the giving to the body of further similar information from the same person or other persons and it is of importance to the body that such further similar information as aforesaid should continue to be given to the body, or
(b) disclosure of the information concerned would constitute a breach of a duty of confidence provided for by a provision of an agreement or enactment (other than a provision specified in column (3) of the Third Schedule of an enactment specified in that Schedule) or otherwise by law."
The Hospital contends that the records at issue - which disclose no more than the age of Ms. B when she gave birth to your father in 1907 - are exempt by virtue of section 26(1)(a) & (b) of the FOI Act. The application of section 26 has been the subject of many previous decisions by my Office and it is not necessary for present purposes to set out a detailed analysis of its provisions. A prerequisite for the application of either of the provisions is that the information contained in the record at issue must have the necessary quality of confidence.
The Hospital refers to the obligations on "health providers" derived from the Hippocratic Oath and to "medical information " held in confidence. The Hospital contends that, in the context of maternity care, age is a clinical factor which determines outcomes for mother and baby. While I note that the entry recording the age of the mother discloses nothing about her treatment, I accept that information arising in a professional relationship between a health professional and patient would normally fall within the category of confidential relationships traditionally recognised by law. I note also that that the type of information imparted by your grandmother and recorded in the records of your father's birth (e.g. her age, marital status) was most likely given to a hospital employee other than a treating physician. For example, the details of Ms. B's age are contained in the Porter's Lodge Book.
The definition of the term "confidence" is derived from the law relating to breach of duty of confidence: "A confidence is formed whenever one party ('the confider') imparts to another ('the confidant') private or secret matters on the express or implied understanding that the communication is for a restricted purpose." ("B" v. Brisbane North Regional Health Authority, (1994) 1 QAR 279, at paragraph 45, quoting from F. Gurry "Breach of Confidence" in P. Finn (Ed.) Essays in Equity; Law Book Company, 1985, p.111.). Based on this definition, I cannot see how information that is available to the public through the GRO, as outlined above, can be concerned with private or secret matters. I accept that Ms. B's imparting of information to the Hospital was, in a very general sense, concerned with "private or secret matters". However in the present circumstances, where your father (and yourself) knew the name of his mother and some other details about his birth, I cannot accept that information about his mother's age can be treated as having the necessary quality of confidence. On this basis, I cannot accept that either of the provisions at section 26(1) applies. I find accordingly.
Even if one were to find that section 26(1)(a) applies, this is one of the exemptions which is subject to a public interest override [section 26(3)]. I am satisfied that if the public interest had to be considered, I would find that on balance the public interest would be better served by releasing the records than by their being withheld. The fact that you are the grand-daughter of Ms B is a circumstance to which it is legitimate to have regard in applying the public interest test. Were it the case that the requester had no close personal tie to the person whose information is at issue (Ms.B), then the public interest conclusion might be otherwise. However, the public interest in persons generally having the fullest possible information on their origins is a very strong one. In the circumstances of this case, I take the view that the public interest, on balance, would favour disclosure of the information to you.
In relation to section 26(1)(b), if one had to further consider its possible application, I am satisfied that it would not be found to apply. For section 26(1)(b) to apply, it would be necessary to find that disclosure of Ms. B's age to her grand-daughter would constitute a breach of a duty of confidence owed to Ms. B. Any duty of confidence arising would be based in equity. While section 26(1)(b) is not subject to an explicit public interest override, it is generally accepted that an obligation of confidence will not be enforced to restrain the disclosure of information which is justified in the public interest. In my recent decision in Case No. 060030 - Ms. Y and the Health Service Executive (published at www.oic.gov.ie), I dealt with this issue in considerable detail. Were it necessary to deal further with section 26(1)(b), I am satisfied that I would find it not to be applicable in the circumstances of this case.
Having carried out a review under Section 34(2) of the Freedom of Information Act, 1997, as amended, I hereby annul the decision of the Rotunda Hospital to refuse access to the records in question. I direct the Hospital to grant access, in the form of a copy, to the two entries in the records identified showing the age of EB in 1907. This is subject to the Hospital's verification in the normal way (if it has not already done so) of your identity as the daughter of GB and the grand-daughter of EB.
A party to a review, or any other person affected by a decision of the Information Commissioner following a review, may appeal to the High Court on a point of law arising from the decision. Such an appeal must be initiated not later than eight weeks from the date of this letter.