Case number: OIC-102043-W0W3X5

Whether Peamount was justified in refusing access, under section 15(1)(a) of the FOI Act, to further records relating to the applicant’s Grandmother other than those already released on the ground that no further records exist or can be found

16 March 2021

Background

On 2 July 2020, the applicant informed the National Archives that he wished to view records relating to Peamount Sanatorium ranging from 1911 to 1919 as he believed his Grandmother was a patient and died there. The National Archives informed the applicant that records relating to his Grandmother must be requested via Peamount Healthcare as the records are closed to the public.

On 6 July 2020, the applicant submitted a request to Peamount for records relating to his late Grandmother. On 15 September 2020, Peamount informed the applicant that a search of the national archives database failed to identify any relevant information from the details he had supplied. Following further correspondence between the parties, Peamount subsequently informed the applicant that its Medical Records Department had located a relevant entry in a Register of Patients and it provided him with an admission number, date of admission, and date of death. It also informed him that it had received notification from the National Archives that his Grandmother’s admission predates the patient case files and that the only record found was a patient admission register that spans the years from 1912 (which is when Peamount Sanatorium was established) to 1927. It provided details of the relevant extract from the register which indicated that his Grandmother was admitted in 1919 and died a number of weeks later.

I note that, separately, the National Archives informed the applicant that having examined its catalogue of the Peamount Archives, the only records of patients that appear to survive from the earlier years of its operation are registers of patients admitted for treatment. It said this is not unusual as individual patient case files were not very common and information on patients tended to be recorded in large format registers.

On 16 December 2020, the applicant sought an internal review of the decision taken on his request. He also expressed concerns about the manner in which his request had been processed. On 7 January 2021, Peamount issued its response to those concerns. It explained that it provided the applicant with the information that had been located and it concluded that every effort had been made to respond to his request. On 8 January 2021, the applicant sought a review by this Office of the Hospital’s decision.

During the course of the review, the investigating officer sought submissions from Peamount on the searches it undertook to locate the relevant records. In its submissions, Peamount said it noted that the entry in the Register of Patients was not passed on to the applicant in full. It said that in this case, the date of admission pre-dated the existence of any case files and as such, it was recognised that the information entered on the Register is of great importance. It said this had presented a learning for the Medical Records Department and that it has since implemented a checklist on the register to advise medical staff to release all line items to the FOI Officer. I understand that the full details of the entry have since been released to the applicant.

Peamount also provided details of the searches it undertook in an effort to locate relevant records and of its reasons for concluding that no further relevant records exist or can be found. The Investigating Officer subsequently provided the applicant with those details and she informed the applicant of her view that Peamount was justified in refusing access to any further relevant records under section 15(1)(a) of the FOI Act and invited him to make a submission on the matter.  In response, the applicant said he was not satisfied that all reasonable searches had taken place to locate the records in question.

I have now completed my review in accordance with section 22(2) of the FOI Act. In conducting my review, I have had regard to the correspondence between the applicant and Peamount and to the correspondence between this Office and both parties during the review. I have decided to conclude this review by way of a formal, binding decision.

Scope of Review

This review is concerned solely with whether Peamount was justified in refusing, under section 15(1)(a) of the Act, the applicant’s request for records relating to his late Grandmother other than those already released.

Analysis and Findings

Section 15(1)(a) of the FOI Act provides that a request for access to a record may be refused if the record does not exist, or if a record cannot be found after all reasonable steps to ascertain its whereabouts have been taken. A review of a public body's refusal of records under this provision assesses whether or not it is justified in claiming that it has taken all reasonable steps to locate all records of relevance to a request or that the requested records do not exist. Having regard to the information provided, this Office forms a view as to whether the decision-maker was justified in coming to the decision that the records sought do not exist or cannot be found. 

As I have outlined above, Peamount provided this Office with details of the searches it undertook in an effort to locate relevant records and of its reasons for concluding that no further relevant records exist or could be found, and the Investigating Officer forwarded those details to the applicant. In the circumstances, while I do not propose to repeat those details in full here, I confirm that I have had regard to them for the purpose of this review.

In summary, Peamount said that given the historic nature of the information sought, dating back almost 102 years, all records held relating to Peamount Sanatorium were transferred to and catalogued in the National Archives, as part of a funded project, which commenced in 2001. The surviving records dating back to the timeframe of this request are kept in two locations, one at Peamount Medical Records unit and the other being an administration register, in ledger format, which is held by the National Archives. It said both locations were exhaustively searched for all information held in relation to the applicant’s Grandmother.

In addition, the applicant sought the burial details and what had happened to his Grandmother's body.  Peamount confirmed that details of funeral arrangements or burials are not kept other than for patients who are buried in Peamount plots in Newcastle Cemetery.  It said it carried out further searches on a file relating to Peamount graves but no information was found relating to the burial location. Peamount confirmed it owns a number of graves at Newcastle Cemetery that are primarily for residents with no next of kin and explained that where a person had no next of kin, it was common practice in Ireland for the body to be released to the relevant County Council, which is likely to be what happened in this case.  It said there is no information on what happened to his Grandmother’s body and where it was taken and that it can only rely on the surviving information held from the period. It said it is not possible to confirm whether it ever kept records on what happened to a deceased person’s body during the requested time period.

For completeness, it is worth nothing that the applicant contacted this Office to advise that he sourced the burial details of his Grandmother through his own independent research.   Peamount explained that this additional information provided by the applicant does not assist in any further searches for information in the archives of Peamount that are held in the National Archives or in the medical records unit. In addition, the surviving archives of Peamount covering this period comprise only the key book Registrar of patients dated 1912 to 1928 and hold no further records.

Following further independent research by the applicant throughout his review, he uncovered a newspaper article that made reference to Peamount Sanatorium in April 1914 that he felt might assist in uncovering further records.  The article outlined that a resident doctor at the time prepared detailed monthly statements for insurance companies on certain patients who were covered by insurance. Although the applicant’s Grandmother was covered by insurance, Peamount stated that records for this time period are held publically with the National Archives and can be requested directly but unfortunately, the information in the article does not provide any assistance with its own search for records.  Furthermore, Peamount said that the applicant’s request predates any individual patient records held by it. It also said that if the timeframe had been later, the applicant would have had the benefit of a full personal medical file for his Grandmother but unfortunately, is it not the case in this review.

It is important to note that the Act does not require public bodies to say with absolute certainty whether records exist or ever existed. In certain cases and depending on the circumstances, a public body may not be a position to state definitively what happened to the records or why they cannot be found. What the Act requires is that the body takes all reasonable steps to ascertain their whereabouts. Neither does the Act require a public body to continue searching indefinitely for records that cannot be found. We do not expect public bodies to carry out extensive or indefinite general searches for records simply because an applicant asserts that more records should or might exist, or rejects a public body's explanation of why a record does not exist.

It is also important to note that the Act does not require FOI bodies to create records if none exist. If the record sought does not exist, that is the end of the matter, regardless of the applicant's views as to the appropriateness or otherwise of the absence of certain records.

Having considered the details of the searches undertaken by Peamount, bearing in mind the historic nature of the records at issue, I am satisfied that it has carried out all reasonable steps in an effort to locate further records sought and provided adequate explanations as to why the records held by it, are somewhat limited. Accordingly, I find that Peamount was justified in refusing the applicant’s request for further relevant records on the ground that no such further records exist or can be found.

Decision

Having carried out a review under section 22(2) of the FOI Act, I hereby affirm the decision of Peamount to refuse access, under section 15(1)(a) of the FOI Act, to any additional relevant records relating to the applicant’s Grandmother other than those already released.

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