Case number: 150334

Whether the Department was justified in its decision to refuse the applicant's request under section 15(1)(c) of the FOI Act on the ground that processing the request would cause a substantial and unreasonable interference with work in a number of its functional areas

Conducted in accordance with section 22(2) of the FOI Act by Stephen Rafferty, Senior Investigator, who is authorised by the Information Commissioner to conduct this review

Background

The applicant made a request to the Department on 12 December 2014 for access to all documentation, email correspondence and files held by the Department and its line agencies for 2009 to 2013 mentioning any one of a number of specified terms, together with all correspondence between the Department and its line agencies, the Department of Finance, CIE, the Irish Maritime Development Office and the European Commission regarding the evaluation, identification or designation of the TEN-T CORE Network.

On 7 January 2015, the Department wrote to the applicant and suggested that he narrow down his request as the broad nature of the request would necessitate examining a very large number of records that would cause a substantial and unreasonable interference with the Department's work and could be refused under section 15(1)(c) of the FOI Act. In his response of 9 January 2015, the applicant expressed his disappointment that the Department was seeking to invoke section 15(1)(c) and he asked the Department to prepare a detailed estimate of the cost involved in processing the request. He also stated that, failing the provision of a detailed estimate, he required the full evaluation which took place in Ireland towards identifying the TEN-T Core and Comprehensive TEN-T Network.

On 20 January 2015, the Department issued a decision refusing the applicant's request under section 15(1)(c). In doing so, it provided an estimate what it could have cost to process the request based on search and retrieval and photocopying costs. I understand that it treated his request for the full evaluation as a separate, new request. On 28 July 2015, having regard to the estimate of costs set out in the Department's letter of 20 January 2015, the applicant sent a cheque for €3870 to the Department in an effort to secure the records he was seeking. The Department returned his cheque on 6 August 2015 and as it had refused his request under section 15(1)(c).

Subsequently, the applicant submitted a request for internal review of the Department's decision. The Department exercised its discretion to accept the late request for internal review. In its internal review decision of 9 October 2015, the Department affirmed its original decision to refuse the request under section 15(1)(c). It noted that, having reviewed the matter, there would be considerably more than 3000 records to be examined, possibly in the region of 9000 records. On 11 October 2015, the applicant applied to this Office for a review of the Department's decision.

In conducting this review, I have had regard to the communications between the applicant and the Department as set out above. I have also had regard to communications between this Office and both the applicant and the Department.

Scope of Review

This review is solely concerned with whether the Department was justified in refusing the applicant's request of 12 December 2014 under section 15(1)(c) of the FOI Act on the ground that processing the request would cause a substantial and unreasonable interference with work in a number of its functional areas.

Preliminary Matters

The Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) is an EU policy under which funding is available for infrastructural projects. In his submission to this Office, the applicant indicated that he has concerns surrounding the manner in which the Department formulated its policy on TEN-T. I should explain at the outset that this Office's remit does not extend to commenting on the manner in which an FOI body performs its functions generally, or to investigating complaints against an FOI body. Furthermore, it is important to note that section 13(4) of the Act requires the FOI body to disregard any reason that the applicant gives for a request in deciding whether to grant or refuse the request.

Analysis and Findings

The Department refused the applicant's request under section 15(1)(c) of the FOI Act. Section 15(1)(c) of the FOI Act provides that a request for records may be refused if granting the request would, by reason of the number or nature of the records concerned or the nature of the information concerned, require the retrieval and examination of such number of records or an examination of such kind of records concerned as to cause a substantial and unreasonable interference with or disruption of the work of the FOI body concerned, including the disruption of work in a particular functional area.

In a submission to this Office, the Department has provided a breakdown of the estimated number of records coming within the scope of the applicants request. It identified five functional areas (Public Transport Investment Division, EU Coordination, Maritime Transport Division, Airports Division and Roads Division) as holding files within the scope of the applicant's request. The Department stated that based on searches it performed to identify records within the scope of the request a minimum of 10,208 electronic records and 34 files containing hard copy records would need to be examined. It is of the view that the examination of these records would cause a substantial and unreasonable interference and disruption of work in the Department. I agree.

Under section 15(4), an FOI body cannot rely on section 15(1)(c) unless it has assisted, or offered to assist, the requester concerned in an endeavour so as to amend the request for re-submission such that it no longer falls within the parameters of section 15(1)(c). I am satisfied that the Department did so in the letter it issued to the applicant on 7 January 2015. Accordingly, I find that the Department was justified in refusing the applicant's request under section 15(1)(c).

Decision

Having carried out a review under section 22(2) of the FOI Act, I hereby affirm the decision of the Department in this case.

Right of Appeal

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.


Stephen Rafferty,
Senior Investigator