Case number: 160018
By letter dated 10 August 2015, the applicant submitted a request to the Department of Justice for a breakdown of the number of prisoner requests for medical treatment at hospitals outside of their detention facilities each month between 1 January 2013 and 1 August 2015, to include the number of requests accepted and the number of requests rejected per month. He also sought annual figures for requests (rejected and accepted) for hospital transfers for each individual prison in the State, the reasons given by prisoners for requesting external medical assistance and the reasons given by prison authorities for refusing requests. The Department forwarded the request to the IPS for processing on 11 August 2015.
On 30 November 2015 the applicant sought an internal review on the basis of the deemed refusal of his request as he had not received a response from the IPS. In its internal review decision of 10 December 2015, the IPS refused access to the requested records under section 15(1)(c). The applicant applied to this Office for a review of that decision on 12 January 2016.
In conducting this review I have had regard to the correspondence between the applicant and the IPS as outlined above and to the correspondence between this Office and both the applicant and the IPS.
This review is concerned with whether or not the IPS was justified in its decision to refuse access to records held by it relating to hospital transfers of prisoners under section 15(1)(c) of the FOI Act on the ground that the work involved in responding to the request would cause a substantial and unreasonable interference with the work of the IPS.
Before I address the substantive issue in this case, I would like to state that I share the applicant's concerns in relation to the manner in which the IPS processed his FOI request. Not only did it fail, by a large margin, to adhere to the statutory time-frames for processing the request but it also appears that undertakings were given to the applicant on more than one occasion that a reply was imminent but none was forthcoming. Furthermore, the internal review decision did not contain details of the applicant's right to apply to this Office for a review of that decision.
I note that the IPS has accepted that its processing of the request was not satisfactory and that it was dealing with a large volume of requests at the time. While I accept that the significant increase in the level of FOI activity has caused difficulties for many bodies, the fact remains that the administration of the FOI Act is one of its statutory functions which, in my view, should be afforded as much weight as any other statutory function. I expect the IPS to examine its procedures and to take measures to ensure that no further requests are overlooked.
Section 15(1)(c) of the FOI Act permits an FOI body to refuse a request for records where the body considers that 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 the records concerned as to cause a substantial and unreasonable interference with or disruption of work (including disruption of work in a particular functional area) of the body.
However, under section 15(4), a body is not entitled to refuse a request under section 15(1)(c) unless it has assisted or offered to assist the requester to amend the request so that it no longer falls within the parameters of section 15(1)(c). In its internal review decision, the IPS asked the applicant to consider if he could refine his request. However, as it had already made its decision at that stage, it is clear that the IPS failed to comply with the provisions of section 15(4) which require it to have assisted or to have made an offer of assistance before a decision is taken.
In the circumstances, as I am not satisfied that the IPS provided assistance or offered assistance to the applicant in accordance with section 15(4), I find that it was not justified in its decision to refuse the request under section 15(1)(c).
Accordingly, I deem it appropriate to annul the decision of the IPS and to direct it to make a fresh, first instance, decision in respect of the applicant's request, in accordance with the provisions of the FOI Act. In making that decision, if the IPS wishes to rely on section 15(1)(c), it must have regard to its obligations under section 15(4).
Having carried out a review under section 22(2) of the FOI Act 2014, I hereby annul the decision of the IPS in this case. I direct the IPS to undertake a fresh decision-making process in respect of the request, as set out above, and to inform the applicant of the outcome of its decision, in accordance with section 13 of the FOI Act.
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.