Case number: 150276
The applicant submitted a request to the Department on 17 July 2015 for a broad range of correspondence and related records concerning a protracted dispute between the applicant and the Department. By email on 31 July 2015, the Department refused the request under section 15(1)(g) of the FOI Act. The applicant sought an internal review of this decision by email on 5 August 2015. In its internal review decision of 13 August 2015, the Department upheld its original decision and refused the request under section 15(1)(g) on the ground that it forms part of a pattern of manifestly unreasonable requests from the same requester. The applicant applied to this Office for a review of that decision on 27 August 2015.
During the course of the review, Mr. Christopher Campbell of this Office invited both the applicant and the Department to make submissions on the matter. Having received submissions from both parties, I consider that this review should now be brought to a close by means of a formal binding decision. In conducting this review I have had regard to the submissions of both parties, to the further correspondence between this Office and the Department and to correspondence between the Department and the applicant in relation to the FOI request.
While the applicant has copied a large volume of correspondence to this Office by way of "background information" to his FOI request, this review is solely concerned with the question of whether the Department was justified in its decision to refuse the applicant's request under section 15(1)(g) of the FOI Act on the ground that the request forms part of a pattern of manifestly unreasonable requests from the same requester.
A request may be refused under section 15(1)(g) if the public body considers that the request is frivolous or vexatious or forms part of a pattern of manifestly unreasonable requests from the same requester. It is relevant to note that section 13(4) of the FOI Act allows a public body to take into account the motive of a requester when considering if section 15(1)(g) applies.
In case Nos. 110102 & 110198 (available on this Office's website at www.oic.gov.ie), this Office explained that the Commissioner has previously set out a number of non-exhaustive factors considered to be relevant in assessing whether a request may be categorised as frivolous or vexatious and that these factors are equally relevant in determining whether or not there is evidence of a pattern of manifestly unreasonable requests. The factors include;
the number of requests made - are they considered excessive by reasonable standards?
the nature and scope of the requests - are they excessively broad and varied in scope or unusually detailed?
the purpose of the requests, e.g. have they been made for their "nuisance value"; are they made without reasonable or legitimate grounds; and/or are they intended to accomplish some objective unrelated to the access process?
the intent of the requester - is the requester's aim to harass the public body?
I have adopted that same approach for the purpose of conducting this review.
The origins of the applicant's protracted dispute with the Department and his subsequent FOI requests concern his belief that the Department acted inappropriately in relation to allegations of fraud brought against him by his former employer and his view that the Department is withholding information from him. The Department, in its decision on this request, stated that it had received two earlier requests from the applicant, in May and June 2015, seeking the same records. In addition the Department stated that it had regard to the fact that the applicant had submitted 23 requests since 1999 relating to the same issue. The Department referred also to previous findings of the Information Commissioner and the Ombudsman relating to the same issue, and to other correspondence with the applicant relating to the same subject indicating that the matter raised by the applicant was considered closed.
The Department argued that the requests have been repetitive and in seeking the same records in subsequent requests are manifestly unreasonable. It contended that every effort was made to facilitate the requests over the past number years.
The FOI request at issue in this case covers a broad range of records and correspondence. I also note that the request, at parts, seeks clarification of certain matters as opposed to seeking specific records. The FOI Act provides for a right of access to records as opposed to a right of access to information. It does not require public bodies to provide clarification of any matter that a requester considers to be relevant where the information sought is not contained in a specific record.
The Department, on 15 October 2015, copied to this Office the applicant's previous FOI requests dated 20 June 2015 and 8 May 2015. Having reviewed these requests it is apparent to me that the request at issue in this review seeks the same records as previously requested in the two reviews referred to above. The Department also contended that the applicant had submitted some 23 requests relating to the same issue. In support of this contention the Department copied to this Office a sample of ten of the applicant's requests dating from 1999 to 2002. It is apparent to me that the subject matter of these requests relates to the same issue.
I accept that the number, frequency, and level of detail of the applicant's requests places a very high administrative burden on the limited resources of the Department.
In essence, it seems to me that the applicant has engaged in a pattern of submitting detailed broad requests with a view to pursuing a dispute that has been ongoing for a number of years and that the FOI Act is being used for a purpose unrelated to the right of access to records, i.e. it is being used tactically for the purpose of pursuing a dispute. Having regard to the number of requests made by the applicant relating to the same matter, and in particular multiple requests seeking the same records, I am satisfied that the Department was justified in deciding to refuse the request at issue on the ground that it forms part of a pattern of manifestly unreasonable requests from the same requester. I find, therefore, that section 15(1)(g) applies.
Having carried out a review under section 22(2) of the Freedom of Information Act 2014, I hereby affirm the decision of the Department.
Section 24 of the FOI Act sets out detailed provisions for an appeal to the High Court by a party to a review, or any other person affected by the decision. In summary, such an appeal, normally on a point of law, must be initiated not later than four weeks after notice of the decision was given to the person bringing the appeal.