Case number: Mr X and Workplace Relations Commission

Whether the WRC was justified in refusing access, under section 15(1)(c) of the FOI Act, to records concerning the applicant dating from 1 January 2020 on the ground that processing the request would cause a substantial and unreasonable interference with, or disruption of, its work

 

12 February 2024

 

Background

The applicant submitted a request to the WRC on 3 August 2023, seeking a copy of all correspondences sent by him to both the WRC and PRU Adjudication Services since 1 January 2020. He also requested all correspondence sent to him by the WRC and PRU Adjudication Services during this period.

On 30 August 2023, the WRC wrote to the applicant informing him it was necessary to extend the time for considering his request and that he could expect to receive a decision on his request by 29 September 2023. On 22 September 2023, the WRC emailed the applicant asking him to clarify his request. On 29 September 2023, the WRC emailed the applicant again and informed him that as it had not received a response to its email of 22 September, it would require an extension of the deadline for making a decision on his FOI request. The WRC said it had located at least six cases that the applicant appears to have been involved in.

On 2 October 2023, the applicant informed the WRC there is no change to his original FOI request. On 3 October 2023, as no original decision had issued to him, the applicant sought an internal review by the WRC. On 18 October 2023, the WRC refused the applicant’s request under section 15(1)(c) of the FOI Act. It said his request covers 64 different adjudication complaint files since 1 January 2020 and that granting the request would cause a substantial and unreasonable interference with or disruption of the WRC’s work due to the number or nature of the records and information concerned. On 25 October 2023, the applicant applied to this Office for a review of the WRC’s decision.

During the course of this review the Investigating Officer provided the applicant with details of submissions made by the WRC to this Office, wherein it said that the applicant has submitted 104 different complaints against different respondents both from the public and private sector. The WRC estimated it would require a minimum 15 working days to process his request. No response was received from the applicant.

I have now completed my review in accordance with section 22(2) of the FOI Act. In carrying out my review, I have had regard to the correspondence outlined above and to the submissions provided by the WRC during the course of this 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 the WRC was justified in its decision to refuse the applicant's request under section 15(1)(c) of the Act on the ground that processing the request would cause a substantial and unreasonable interference with, or disruption of its work.

Analysis and Findings

Section 15(1)(c) provides that an FOI body may refuse to grant a request if it 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 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, section 15(4) provides that a request cannot be refused under section 15(1)(c) unless the body has assisted, or offered to assist, the requester in amending the request so that it no longer falls to be refused under that section. As such, before I can consider whether the WRC was justified in refusing the request under section 15(1)(c), I must first consider whether it complied with the provisions of section 15(4) before doing so.

The FOI Act is silent on the precise nature or level of the assistance to be offered under section 15(4), and this Office takes the view that before a body can refuse a request under section 15(1)(c), the body must first have provided reasonable assistance to the requester in amending the request, or have offered to provide assistance in cases where the requester is not willing to amend the original request, in order to comply with the requirements of section 15(4). On the question of what constitutes reasonable assistance, this Office considers that the level or nature of the assistance to be provided can vary significantly from case to case and will depend on the particular facts and circumstances of the case. It will often also depend on the willingness of the parties to engage in meaningful discussion on what might be acceptable in the circumstances.

It is important to note that while there is an onus on FOI bodies to assist, or to at least offer to assist, requesters, it is often the case that requesters are best placed to offer suggestions as to how a more focused search for relevant records might take place, based on their knowledge of the type of information they wish to access. This is not always straightforward as requesters may not necessarily be aware of the type, nature and/or location of records held. Nevertheless, it is also noteworthy that a request for access to records must contain sufficient particulars in relation to the information concerned to enable the record to be identified by the taking of reasonable steps. In such circumstances, the difficulty with requesters making broad or non-specific requests, such as a request for any and all records, becomes apparent.

As noted above, the WRC sent the applicant an email on 22 September 2023 in which it said, “In order to assist you with your request, please clarify in specific terms, what records you require when the scope of your request involves records dating back to the 01/01/2020”. In further correspondence with the applicant on 29 September 2023, the WRC noted that during its search for records, it had found at least six adjudication cases that the applicant appears to have been involved in and informed him that it would now require an extension to the deadline for making the decision on his FOI request, as it had not received a reply to its email of 22 September. On 2 October 2023, the applicant informed the WRC that there was to be no change to his original FOI request. As noted above, on 18 October 2023 the WRC refused the applicant’s request under section 15(1)(c) of the FOI Act.

Section 15(4) of the FOI Act states that a request cannot be refused under section 15(1)(c) unless the body has assisted or offered to assist the applicant in amending the request. In this case, I accept that the WRC contacted the applicant on 22 September 2023 about clarifying the scope of his request. I note that in this communication with the applicant the WRC offered to assist the applicant by asking him to clarify his request. However, the provisions of section 15(4) of the Act are clear. An FOI body shall not refuse a request under section 15(1)(c) unless it has assisted, or offered to assist, the requester in amending the request so that it no longer falls to be refused under section 15(1)(c). The WRC did not inform the applicant before making its decision on his request that it intended to refuse the request under section 15(1)(c) of the Act if he did not amend his request so that it no longer falls to be refused under section 15(1)(c). As such, the applicant was not made aware of the consequences of not amending his request, or of failing to avail of the offer of assistance, in advance of the WRC’s decision on his request.

Accordingly, I find that the WRC did not comply with provisions of section 15(4) in this case. My finding that the WRC did not comply with the provisions of section 15(4) is, of itself, sufficient for me to find that it was not justified in refusing the applicant’s request under section 15(1)(c) of the Act, and I find accordingly.

In the circumstances, I am satisfied that the most appropriate course of action to take is to annul the decision of the WRC and to direct it to undertake a fresh consideration of the request. If the WRC intends to rely on section 15(1)(c) in making its new decision, it must comply with the requirements of section 15(4) beforehand.

Decision

Having carried out a review under section 22(2) of the FOI Act, I hereby annul the decision of the WRC to refuse the applicant’s request under section 15(1)(c) of the Act on the basis that it did not comply with the provisions of section 15(4) of the Act. I direct the WRC to conduct a fresh decision making process on the applicant’s request.

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.

 

Richard Crowley
Investigator