Case number: OIC-54679-B9T1D5
10 March 2020
I understand that the applicant in this case made a complaint to CORU in May 2018 about a social worker he had engaged with previously. The complaint was considered by CORU’s Preliminary Proceedings Committee (PPC), which is responsible for screening complaints to assess if further action is warranted. The PPC decided there was not sufficient cause to warrant further action in relation to the applicant’s complaint. By letter dated 17 July 2018, CORU informed the applicant of the decision of the PPC and of the reasons for its decision.
On 31 August 2018, the applicant submitted an FOI request to CORU for records relating to his complaint. Among other things, he sought details of the policies the PPC relied upon when making its decision, and why it had made certain findings.
That matter was the subject of a separate review by this Office and forms no part of this review. On 8 February 2019, the applicant wrote again to CORU purporting to make an application for a statement of reasons under section 10 of the FOI Act. While he referenced the reasons outlined in CORU’s letter of 17 July 2018, he did not specifically identify any particular act or decision for which he was seeking reasons.
CORU subsequently sought to clarify the nature of the section 10 application. Following a number of exchanges of correspondence, CORU wrote again to the applicant on 5 April 2019 and noted that the reasons for the PPC’s decision had already been provided to him and that it was unable to process his application under section 10 as it did not have sufficient particulars to allow it to do so.
On 10 April 2019, the applicant wrote to CORU and said he wanted to know how the PPC made its decision, why it made the decision and what policies it relied upon to make its decision.
CORU treated that letter as a request for records and on 8 May 2019 it refused the request under section 15(1)(i) on the grounds that the relevant records had previously been released to the applicant. It noted that the letter of 10 April 2019 appeared to restate the request made on 31 August 2018. The applicant sought an internal review of that decision, and on 4 July 2019 CORU affirmed its original decision. On 12 July 2019, the applicant sought a review by this Office of CORU’s decision.
At an early stage in the review process, CORU clarified that it had treated the applicant’s letter of 10 April 2019 as a request for records, given its similarities with the earlier request and given that the applicant had, in his letter of 8 February 2019, referenced the precise reasons why its PPC had decided there was not sufficient cause to warrant further action in relation to his complaint. It noted that it had previously provided the applicant with a copy of the PPC procedures and that the applicant had been provided with the reasons given by the PPC for its decision in July 2018 by way of the letter dated 17 July 2018.
On 11 October 2019, Ms McCrory of this Office informed CORU of her view that the applicant had, indeed, made an application under section 10 for a statement of reasons, namely why the PPC decided that there was not sufficient cause to warrant further action in relation to the complaint he had made. She invited CORU to make a submission on the matter and CORU did so.
I have now concluded my review in this case and have decided to bring the case to a close by way of a formal, binding decision. In conducting this review I have had regard to the correspondence between the applicant and CORU as set out above and to the communications between this Office and both CORU and the applicant on the matter.
While I can understand the confusion that arose in this case in light of the close similarities between the applicant’s letter of 10 April 2019 and his earlier request of 31 August 2018, I am satisfied that he submitted a valid application under section 10 of the FOI Act.
Accordingly, this review is concerned solely with whether CORU has complied with the provisions of section 10 of the Act in response to the application for a statement of reasons as to why CORU’s PPC decided that there was not sufficient cause to warrant further action in relation to the complaint the applicant had made in May 2018 about a social worker.
Before I deal with the substantive issue arising, I should explain for the benefit of the applicant that this Office has no remit to investigate complaints, to adjudicate on how FOI bodies perform their functions generally, or to act as an alternative dispute resolution mechanism with respect to actions taken by FOI bodies. As such, we cannot examine the appropriateness, or otherwise, of the acts or decisions taken by public bodies for which statements of reasons are sought.
Section 10 of the FOI Act provides that a person who is affected by an act of an FOI body, and has a material interest in a matter affected by the act or to which it relates, is entitled to a statement of reasons for the act as well as a statement of any findings on any material issues of fact made for the purposes of that act.
Section 10(5) provides that a person has a material interest in a matter affected by an act of an FOI body or to which it relates:
"if the consequence or effect of the act may be to confer on or withhold from the person a benefit without also conferring it on or withholding it from persons in general or a class of persons which is of significant size having regard to all the circumstances and of which the person is a member."
"Benefit" is defined at section 10(13) of the Act as including
"(a) any advantage to the person,
(b) in respect of an act of an FOI body done at the request of the person, any consequence or effect thereof relating the person, and
(c) the avoidance of a loss, liability, penalty, forfeiture, punishment or other disadvantage affecting the person."
Taking section 10 as a whole, this Office considers that the word "act" in the section must be interpreted as the exercise (or refusal to exercise) of a power or function which may result in the conferring or withholding of a benefit. In addition, the reasons for the act must have a bearing on the outcome of whether a person receives or does not receive a benefit or suffers a loss or a penalty or other disadvantage. In other words, if the same outcome would result regardless of the reasons for the act in question then section 10 does not apply to that act.
In its submission to this Office, CORU provided details of its procedures in respect of the investigation of complaints and the holding of fitness to practice enquiries. It explained that during the investigation stage, the PPC investigates complaints to assess whether they warrant further action. When the PPC decides that a complaint warrants further action, the hearing stage consists of the Professional Conduct Committee or Health Committee hearing those complaints.
CORU said it was unclear what affect the decision made by the PPC had on the applicant or how he had a material interest in a matter affected by the decision. It argued, in any event, that the applicant had already received the reasons for the decision of the PPC as set out in its letter of 17 July 2018.
Having carefully considered the matter, I am satisfied that the applicant does, indeed, have a material interest in the decision taken by the PPC in this case. By deciding that there was not sufficient cause to warrant further action in relation to the complaint, it denied the applicant the benefit of having his complaint heard. However, I am also satisfied that CORU has provided an adequate statement of reasons for that decision, in its letter of 17 July 2018.
According to CORU, the applicant’s complaint related to, among other things, a letter of 17 February 2016 sent by the social worker to the complainant that the applicant claimed to be inaccurate and a breach of confidentiality. In its letter of 17 July 2018, it explained that the PPC formed the opinion that there was not sufficient cause to warrant further action in relation to the applicant’s complaint as it was satisfied that there were no fitness to practice concerns regarding the social worker’s professional practice or conduct in relation to the matters complained of.
It said it was satisfied that there was no breach of confidentiality on the part of the social worker as;
This Office takes the view that a statement of reasons should be intelligible and adequate having regard to the particular circumstances of the case. It should be sufficiently clear to enable an applicant to understand without undue difficulty why the FOI body acted as it did. However, it does not necessarily have to contain a detailed clarification of all issues identified by an applicant as relevant to a particular act or decision, nor is there a requirement that it be in a particular form. I am satisfied that the letter of 17 July 2018 adequately explains why the PPC decided that there was not sufficient cause to warrant further action in relation to the complaint.
It appears that the applicant has taken issue with the fact that the PPC regarded the social worker’s letter as appropriate. However, as I have explained above, the appropriateness, or otherwise, of the decision taken is not a matter for this Office to consider. If the body explains why it acted as it did, this Office has no further role in the matter.
I would add that there are many acts or decisions taken by FOI bodies where section 10 has no relevance. The Oireachtas could not have intended that FOI bodies should be required, on demand, to provide a written statement of reasons and findings on any material issues of fact made for the purposes of every single action of the body. There will be many instances where a number of secondary actions/decisions are taken in the course of making a substantive decision that affects a person and where that person has a material interest in a matter affected by that substantive decision or to which it relates. However, section 10 does not entitle a person affected by the substantive decision to a statement of reasons in respect of each and every action that was taken in arriving at that decision.
In my view, the applicant was entitled to a statement of reasons for the substantive act taken by the PPC. I am satisfied that he has a material interest in a matter affected by that act as the result of the act was to withhold from the applicant a benefit. However, he is not entitled to reasons for all related secondary decisions such as why the PPC deemed the letter from the social worker to be appropriate, as such secondary decisions did not result in the conferring or withholding of a benefit.
In conclusion, therefore, I find that CORU has complied with the requirements of section 10 in relation to the application for a statement of reasons as to why CORU’s PPC decided that there was not sufficient cause to warrant further action in relation to the complaint the applicant had made in May 2018 about a social worker.
Having carried out a review under section 22(2) of the FOI Act, I hereby affirm the decision of CORU on the ground that it has provided the applicant with an adequate statement of the reasons why CORU’s PPC decided that there was not sufficient cause to warrant further action in relation to the complaint the applicant had made in May 2018 about a social worker.
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.