Whether the Council was justified in its decision to extend the period for consideration of the applicant’s FOI request under section 14(1)(a) of the Act
18 December 2019
In a request dated 29 August 2019, the applicant sought access to all correspondence to and from the Council pertaining to repurposing of a named former nursing home. On 25 September 2019, the Council informed the applicant that it was necessary to extend the period for consideration of his request by 4 weeks under section 14(1)(a) of the FOI Act due to the number of records involved in his request. On 27 September 2019, the applicant applied to this Office for a review of the Council’s decision to extend the time 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 Council and the applicant outlined above and to correspondence between this Office and both the Council and the applicant on the matter.
Scope of Review
This review is concerned solely with whether the Council’s decision to extend the deadline for considering the applicant’s request was in accordance with the provisions of section 14 of the Act.
Analysis and Findings
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, section 14(1) provides that a body may extend the period for consideration of a request by up to four further weeks in certain circumstances, including where the request relates to such number of records that compliance with the four week period is not reasonably possible.
Section 14(2) provides that where a period is extended the body must, before the expiry of the four week period prescribed in section 13, notify the requester of the extension, the period of the extension, and the reasons for the extension.
In its submission to this Office, the Council provided details of the process undertaken in considering the applicant’s request, which led to its decision to apply a time extension in this case. The Council explained that three staff members from the Housing Department spent a total of nine hours processing the request and a further two staff members from the Planning Department spent six hours working on the request. A search was also undertaken in the Chief Executive’s Office and the FOI Officer spent three hours dealing with the request, resulting in a total of 19 hours across the Council. The Council issued its decision to the applicant on 18 October 2019. A total of 26 records were identified by the Council consisting of 107 pages released to the applicant.
The Council also explained that it was dealing with another FOI request in relation to the same subject matter simultaneously. It stated that there was a degree of overlap and duplication which placed additional pressure on the Council’s staff. The Council stated that while it relied on section 14(1)(a) of the FOI Act when applying the time extension due to the number of records involved, it suggested that it could potentially have also relied on section 14(1)(b), which may be applied where the number of other requests relating to the same records is such that compliance with the four week period is not reasonably possible. The Council also highlighted the high pressure working environment of the Planning and Housing departments and outlined the staffing resource pressures in these departments and the FOI Unit at the time of the applicant’s request. Finally, the Council referred to the demands on its resources from an increase of nearly 400% in the number of FOI requests it received since FOI application fees were abolished under the 2014 FOI Act.
It seems to me that the Council’s reasons for applying the time extension was based on a number of grounds, namely:
• the number of departments within the Council that were involved in processing the request, whether on the ground that they might hold relevant records and were involved in the search for and retrieval of records , or in respect of the co-ordination and processing of the request,
• the amount of work involved in processing the request, and
• the demands on staff resources required across the organisation.
As I have outlined above, to apply the extension under section 14(1)(a) the request must relate to such number of records that compliance with the four week period is not reasonably possible. The Act provides no guidance on the number of records that might be involved before an extension can be appropriately applied. As such, each case must be considered on its merits based on the particular facts and circumstances. Nevertheless, the provision is clear that a decision to extend the period under section 14(1)(a) must be based on the number of records to which the request relates.
The number of records ultimately identified by the Council as coming within the scope of the request was 26. In circumstances where the Council has provided no details of the number of records that had to be examined in an effort to locate those 26 records, I simply cannot find that the Council has justified its decision to apply the extension under section 14(1)(a).
While I acknowledge the work pressures outlined by the Council and the challenge of balancing competing priorities, section 14(1)(a) does not allow for the extension of the period for consideration of a request for the reasons outlined by the Council.
I should add that while the Council argued in its submission that it could potentially have relied on section 14(1)(b) to apply the extension, it did not do so. As such, I have not considered this aspect of the Council’s argument.
In conclusion, therefore, while my findings in this case can have no tangible benefit for the applicant given that the Council has already issued its decision on his request, I find that the Council was not justified in extending the period for consideration of the request under section 14(1)(a) of the Act.
Having carried out a review under section 22(2) of the FOI Act, I hereby annul the Council’s decision to extend the period for consideration of the applicant’s request under section 14 of the Act in this case.
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.