Case number: 160479
The applicant sought access to details of all contributions received by UCC either directly or indirectly from the Apple company, whether provided as cash or in-kind, including but not limited to contributions to research projects in any department, contributions towards buildings, sponsorship of professorships and sponsorship of events, from 1 January 2011 to the date of the request. As UCC failed to issue a decision on the request within the required time-frame, the applicant sought an internal review on the basis of a deemed refusal of its request.
As UCC again failed to issue a decision within the required time-frame, the applicant sought a review by this Office on 21 October 2016. UCC subsequently informed the applicant, by letter dated 25 October 2016, that it was refusing the request under section 15(1)(a) on the basis that its accounting system does not record the information requested and under section 15(1)(c) on the basis that conducting other searches would cause a substantial and unreasonable disruption of its work. As the applicant was not satisfied with UCC's response, the review proceeded. In conducting this review I have had regard to the relevant correspondence between the applicant and UCC and to the correspondence between this Office and both the applicant and UCC on the matter.
This review is concerned solely with whether UCC was justified in refusing access to the records sought on the ground that the records do not exist or cannot be found after all reasonable steps to ascertain their whereabouts have been taken, and on the ground that the request was voluminous.
Section 15(1)(a) provides that access to records may be refused if the records concerned do not exist or cannot be found after all reasonable steps to ascertain their whereabouts have been taken. The role of the Commissioner in a "search case" is to decide whether the decision maker has had regard to all of the relevant evidence and, if so, whether the decision maker was justified in coming to the decision that the records do not exist or cannot be found after all reasonable steps to ascertain their whereabouts have been taken. The evidence in search cases consists of the steps actually taken to search for records, along with miscellaneous other evidence about the record management practices of the FOI body, on the basis of which the decision maker concluded that the steps taken to search for records were reasonable. This Office does not normally search for records.
It is clear to me in this case that UCC's searches fell well short of the requirements of section 15(1)(a). As noted, UCC stated that a search was run on its "Agresso" accounting system, which did not contain any record of the information sought. No further searches were conducted. Indeed, the very fact that UCC also sought to rely upon section 15(1)(c) to refuse the request suggests that it was of the view that relevant records may well exist. In my view, simply running a search on Agresso is not enough to satisfy the requirements of section 15(1)(a). Therefore I find that UCC was not justified in its decision to refuse the request under section 15(1)(a).
Section 15(1)(c) of the FOI Act allows an FOI body to refuse to grant a request if it considers that granting the request would cause a substantial and unreasonable interference with, or disruption of, its work, including disruption of work in a particular functional area, due to the number or nature of records that would be required to be retrieved and examined. However, section 15(4) provides that a body cannot refuse a request under section 15(1)(c) unless it has first assisted, or offered to assist, the requester in amending the request so that it would no longer be refused under section 15(1)(c).
The first occasion on which UCC raised section 15(1)(c) as a ground for refusal was in its letter of 25 October 2016. However, it made no effort to assist, or to offer to assist, the applicant as required by section 15(4) before doing so. Accordingly, I find that UCC was not justified in its decision to refuse the request under section 15(1)(c).
The effect of my findings on the applicability of sections 15(1)(a) and 15(1)(c) is that UCC's decision must be annulled and UCC must make a fresh decision in respect of the applicant's request, in accordance with the provisions of the FOI Act. In making that decision, should UCC wish to rely on section 15(1)(c), it must have full regard to its obligations under section 15(4). It must also make every effort to comply with the time-frames set out in the FOI Act for processing requests.
Having carried out a review under section 22(2) of the FOI Act, I hereby annul the decision of UCC to refuse the request under sections 15(1)(a) and 15(1)(c) of the FOI Act. I direct UCC to undertake a fresh decision-making process on the applicant's request, in accordance with its obligations under 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.