Case number: OIC-53485-C5P9P1 (190212)
27 August 2019
On 28 February 2019, the applicant submitted a request to the Institute for all records relating to his application for professorial designation, including a number of listed categories of related records. On 27 March 2019, the Institute part-granted the request. It released a number of records to the applicant, redacting certain information from seven of the records under section 37(1) (personal information relating to third parties) and refusing access to another record under sections 35(1)(a) (information obtained in confidence) and 30(1)(a) (functions and negotiations of FOI bodies).
The applicant sought an internal review of that decision, following which the Institute varied its decision on 29 April 2019. It released the applicant’s name which had been redacted from one of the records under section 37(1) and the record that had been withheld under sections 35(1)(a) and 30(1)(a). On 2 May 2019, the applicant sought a review by this Office of the Institute’s decision not to fully grant his request.
In a subsequent email to this Office, the applicant stated that he had received no feedback specific to his application or explanation to justify the decision that he did not succeed in his application. He stated that he was left with no alternative but to request all information relating to his application and the processing of that application.
During the course of the review, the Institute provided this Office with the details of the searches carried out to locate all relevant records. Ms Swanwick of this Office outlined the details of those searches to the applicant and informed him of her view that the Institute was justified in refusing access to additional records on the ground that no further relevant records exist. She invited the applicant to make a further submission on the matter.
While the applicant indicated that he wished to make a submission, no such submission has been received. As such, I consider it appropriate to conclude this review by way of a formal, binding decision. In conducting my review, I have had regard to the correspondence between the Institute and the applicant as outlined above and to correspondence between this Office and both the Institute and the applicant on the matter.
This review is concerned solely with whether the Institute was justified in refusing the applicant’s request for access to additional records relating to his application for professorial designation other than those already released to him on the ground that no further relevant records exist or can be found.
Section 15(1)(a) of the FOI Act provides that a request for access to records may be refused if the records sought either do not exist or cannot be found after all reasonable steps to ascertain their whereabouts have been taken. The Commissioner’s role in such cases is to review the decision of the FOI body and to decide whether the decision was justified. This Office must have regard to the evidence available to the decision maker in arriving at his/her decision. The evidence in “search” cases generally consists of the steps actually taken to search for the records along with miscellaneous other information about the record management practices of the FOI body, insofar as those practices relate to the records in question.
In its submissions to this Office, the Institute provided details of its record storage practices and the searches conducted in response to the applicant’s request. As this Office has already provided the applicant with those details, I do not propose to repeat them in full here. In short, it stated that all relevant documentation is maintained by the administrator within the Office of the Vice President Academic Affairs and Registrar. It stated that the retention requirement for files relating to the professorial designation process is three years and that copy documents were the only files which had been destroyed. With regard to email correspondence specifically, it explained that each staff member is responsible for maintaining their own records and that all relevant emails are to be retained for the required retention period.
The Institute explained that hard copy files are held alphabetically in a secure file storage area and that all files were thoroughly checked for relevant data. In relation to electronic files, it stated that relevant staff members were requested to conduct a search within their own email accounts, using the applicant’s name as a search term, and submit relevant emails to the administrator, who collated those emails with relevant emails from the firstname.lastname@example.org email account, which was used for all formal communications issued to members of the professorial designation committee and applicants. The Institute also outlined that the three external members of the professorial designation committee were consulted and that they confirmed that they do not currently hold any notes on file for the applicant.
As outlined above, the applicant stated that he had received no feedback specific to his application or explanation to justify the decision that he did not succeed in his application. On that point, I note that all applications were considered by the Professorial Designation Committee and I note the Institute’s comments that individual committee members contributed to the meeting and that the meeting minutes are a summary of all contributions.
I note that the meeting minutes which were provided to the applicant do not contain details about individual applicants, apart from the recording of the decision on whether or not to propose candidates for designation. In its submission to this Office, the Institute stated that documentation which each of the three external members of the committee brought to the meetings, which may have had hand-written notes, was returned to the Administrator in the Office of the Vice President Academic Affairs and Registrar immediately after each meeting for shredding.
I also note that in the Institute wrote to the applicant on 26 February 2019 and provided some general observations concerning the applications. It also stated that candidates who wished to obtain additional information should contact the Vice President. The applicant emailed the Vice President and asked for detailed written feedback. In response, the Vice President informed the applicant that he would not be providing further written feedback but that he was willing to meet with the applicant to clarify, as best he could, any specific queries he might have.
The Institute stated that the Vice President prepared a briefing note (key points from the minutes and salient points from the external referee reports) to provide feedback for the unsuccessful candidates who requested a meeting. It stated that a briefing note was not prepared for the applicant as he did not avail of the opportunity to meet with the Vice President to avail of that feedback.
I should say at this stage that it is not within the remit of this Office to examine the administrative actions of public bodies. If the Institute can show that it has carried out all reasonable steps to ascertain the whereabouts of relevant records, then that is the end of the matter.
Having considered the Institute’s description of the searches undertaken and of its processes, I am satisfied that the Institute has carried out all reasonable steps in an effort to ascertain the whereabouts of all relevant records coming within the scope of the request. I find, therefore that the Institute was justified in reusing access to any additional records on the ground that no further relevant records exist or can be found after all reasonable steps to ascertain their whereabouts have been taken.
Having carried out a review under section 22(2) of the FOI Act, I hereby affirm the Institute’s decision to refuse the applicant’s request for further records relating to his application for professorial designation under section 15(1)(a) 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.