Case number: OIC-60498-V7W3V0
6 February 2020
In a request dated 29 November 2019, the applicant sought access to all records from 7 June 2017 onwards held by the Department concerning him and a named Division within the Department where he works.
On 17 December 2019, the Department informed the applicant that it was necessary to extend the period for consideration of his request by four weeks under section 14(1)(a) of the Act due to the volume of records to be examined and considered. On the same date, the applicant sought a review by this Office of the decision to extend the time frame for considering his request.
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 between the Department and the applicant as outlined above and to correspondence between this Office and both the Department and the applicant on the matter.
This review is concerned solely with whether the Department’s decision to extend the time frame for considering the applicant’s request was in accordance with the provisions of section 14 of the Act.
Section 13(1) of the Act provides that an FOI body shall make a decision on a request for records within four weeks of receipt of the request. However, under section 14(1), it may extend that four week period by up to four further weeks where it considers that
that compliance with section 13(1) within the four weeks specified is not reasonably possible.
In its submission to this Office, the Department said that there was potentially a large volume of emails, given the nature of work undertaken by the Unit and that there was also a potentially large volume of submissions and files in relation to specified work undertaken by the Unit.
The Department said that each member of the Unit would have to search their e-mail accounts and print or save any relevant records. It said staff would also have to search the Unit’s shared electronic storage drives for relevant records and extract them. It said hard copy files would also have to be examined for relevant records. It said eleven staff would be involved in searching for records, between the Unit, staff that have left the Unit and the Human Resources Division.
In a subsequent submission of 3 February 2020, the Department said that when staff examined their e-mail accounts and the shared folders, it became apparent that there would be in the region of 2,000 emails alone that would meet the criteria of the applicant’s request. It said that even with the time extension, it would have been difficult to meet even the amended deadline given the volume of records involved.
The Department said that in an effort to relieve the administrative burden of the request, the decision maker contacted the applicant by e-mail on 6 January 2020 (during the course of this review) to clarify if he required copies of emails he had previously received and that the applicant agreed to omit emails that had been sent, or copied, to him. On 28 January 2020, the Department issued its decision to the applicant. The schedule of records attached to the decision indicates 39 records were covered by the applicant’s revised request.
I note that the Department’s decision to extend the deadline for considering the applicant’s request was taken within the required time frame set out in section 14. The question I must consider, therefore, is whether it was justified in doing so on the ground that the request related to such number of records that compliance with the four weeks specified in section 13 was not reasonably possible.
While the applicant subsequently agreed to refine his request, it had not been refined at the time the Department decided to extend the time frame for considering the request. As such, the Department was faced with having to examine in the region of 2,000 emails and a potentially large volume of hard copy records.
While it would have been of benefit to both parties if the Department had contacted the applicant at an early stage in the process to seek a refinement of the request, it was under no statutory obligation to do so in circumstances where it was willing to process the request. I note, for example, that it has not been suggested that the Department was considering a refusal of the request under section 15(1)(c), which allows for the refusal of a request where processing the request would cause a substantial and unreasonable interference with, or disruption of, work of the body, including disruption of work in a particular functional area.
Having regard to the Department’s explanation of the nature and volume of records to which the request related, I am satisfied that the Department’s decision to extend the period for considering the applicant’s request was in accordance with the provisions of section 14(1)(a).
Having carried out a review under section 22(2) of the FOI Act, I hereby affirm the Department’s decision to extend the period for consideration of the applicant’s request under section 14 of the Act in this case.
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.