Case number: OIC-107223-K3C2H5
22 June 2021
In a request dated 4 November 2020, the applicant sought access to all forms of written communication emails, letters, letters handed in at front desk, minutes of meetings, internal memos, and texts that mention him for the past 25 years held by all sections of the housing department, the County engineering office, the Cahir County Council office, the County Manager, and all upper management meetings”.
On 6 November 2020, the Council wrote to the applicant wherein it informed him that his request did not contain sufficient particulars to enable the records sought to be identified and that his request may have to be refused. In order to assist the applicant with his request, it asked him to provide further details to help it identify the records sought. It asked him to provide details of the sections he had dealings with and when, and any related reference or account numbers. It also explained that as his request was for personal information it required appropriate evidence of identification.
On 17 November 2020, the applicant submitted a new request, wherein he stated that he needed the Council to look at the housing section and the customer service desk. He sought “All and everything on me”. It appears that the Council emailed the applicant seeking evidence of identification and that the applicant did not reply. Instead, on 2 February 2021, he re-submitted the request he had originally submitted on 4 November 2020. Separately, he sent identification details to the Council when requested to do so. On 19 February, 2021, the Council wrote to the applicant and informed him that it was proposing to refuse his request under section 15(1)(c) of the Act (which is essentially concerned with the refusal of voluminous requests) unless he agreed to refine it, and it informed him that it would be happy to assist in refining the request. In response, the applicant stated that he would need all information as set out in his request.
On 2 March 2021, the Council refused the applicant’s request under section 15(1)(c) on the basis that granting the request would, by reason of the number of the records concerned, require the retrieval and examination of such number of records as to cause a substantial and unreasonable interference with and disruption of work of its housing section. The applicant sought an internal review of that decision, following which the Council affirmed its refusal of the request. On 6 May 2021, the applicant sought a review by this Office of the Council’s decision.
During the course of the review, the investigating officer provided the applicant with the key details of the Council’s submission, in which it explained why it had decided to refuse the request under section 15(1)(c) of the Act. She informed him of her view that the Council was justified in refusing the request and invited the applicant to make a submission on the matter. He did so, by email dated 20 June 2021.
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 Council and the applicant as outlined above, and to correspondence between this Office and both the Council and the applicant on the matter. I have decided to conclude this review by way of a formal, binding decision.
This review is concerned solely with whether the Council was justified in its decision to refuse the applicant’s request under section 15(1)(c) of the Act on the ground that granting the request would require the retrieval and examination of such number of records as to cause a substantial and unreasonable interference with and disruption of work of its housing section.
In his correspondence with this Office, the applicant indicated that he needs the information sought for legal reasons. Section 13(4) of the Act provides that in deciding whether to grant or refuse a request, any reason that the requester gives for the request shall be disregarded. This means that this Office cannot have regard to the applicant's motives for seeking access to the records at issue, except in so far as those motives reflect what might be regarded as public interest factors in favour of release of the information where the Act requires a consideration of the public interest (not relevant in this case).
Section 15(1)(c) provides for the refusal of a request where the FOI body 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 the 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 FOI body concerned.
In its submissions to this Office, the Council confirmed that as the applicant did not refine his request, it was left with no other option at that point but to refuse the request based on its voluminous nature. It said that an initial examination of the electronic files identified 1,500 individual records that referred to the applicant. It said this included emails, excel spreadsheets and word documents. It estimated that the total number of documents to be reviewed would be 1,500 electronic files and 250 hard copy files which, it estimated, would take 58 hours to review. The Council explained that the electronic records are held in a number of systems and outlined the process involved in the retrieval of such records. It provided a breakdown of the estimate of 58 hours and believed this would represent actual uninterrupted hours as follows:-
The Council provided an overview of its housing department, as follows. The housing department consists of a number of functional areas which fall broadly into many categories and the department has a pool of clerical officers to support the volume of work generated in all of these areas. This equates to 16.4 whole time staff to support the entire housing department. There is a significant volume of work associated with the processing of housing applications for grant funding to assist persons with a disability, older persons and those with identified medical needs to adapt their homes. This is required for both Council-owned and private homes. Furthermore, there are over 5,500 individual properties managed by the team and rent has to be collected on weekly from each of these properties. In addition, there are almost 4,000 people on the housing waiting list in Tipperary which requires a large volume of support from its housing department. This is addition to the normal administrative duties associated with the day to day running of a department where there is a significant amount of scrutiny from, and engagement with, public representatives. The housing department is tasked with ensuring that it provides housing for all of those who require it, maintain the value of the properties in its control and to get the best value for the taxpayer.
Notwithstanding the above staffing levels and functions of the housing department, the Council said that the majority of the work in relation to the applicant’s request would fall to be carried out by an individual decision maker. It therefore concluded that, given the diverse range of functions for which it has responsibilities, the burden of time required to answer this one request would constitute a substantial and unreasonable interference with the functioning of its housing department.
In his submission to this Office, the applicant expressed dissatisfaction with the manner in which the Council dealt with his request and with the review process itself. However, he did not address the substantive issue of the applicability of section 15(1)(c). Instead, he argued that he was not familiar with the FOI process or how it works and that this Office should advise him in obtaining the information he seeks.
It is not the role of this Office to advise the applicant on how to obtain the records he has sought in his request. As outlined above, our role is to consider whether the Council was justified in refusing the request on the ground that granting the request would require the retrieval and examination of such number of records as to cause a substantial and unreasonable interference with and disruption of work of its housing section. There is, however, an obligation on the Council to assist, of to offer to assist, a requester in refining a request before it refuses the request under section 15(1)(c) (section 15(4) refers). I am satisfied that in this case, the Council has done so. As outlined above, it wrote to the applicant on 6 November 2020 and provided details of the information it would need to help identify the specific records sought. It also wrote to him on 19 February, 2021 and informed him that it would be happy to assist in refining the request. In response, the applicant simply said that he would need all information as set out in his request. He made no effort to engage with the Council to see if an acceptable arrangement could be reached.
Section 15(1)(c) of the Act is an express acknowledgement of the fact that there are limits to the resources a public body must expend on processing requests. The FOI Act seeks to strike a balance between ensuring access to records to the greatest extent possible and managing the administrative burden on FOI bodies in dealing with requests that require a significant allocation of time and resources.
I accept the Council’s explanation of the time and resources that would be required to retrieve and examine the records coming within the scope of the applicant’s request. I also accept the Council’s contention that processing the request would cause a substantial and unreasonable interference with, and disruption of, its work, including disruption of work in a particular function area. I find, therefore, that the Council was justified in refusing the request under section 15(1)(c).
For the benefit of the applicant, I would add that it remains open to him to submit a refined request to the Council for specific records. The request made was quite broad and covered a substantial time-frame whereas a more specific and focused request may be acceptable to both parties. I note from his correspondence with this Office that he requires information for legal reasons. This would suggest that there may be particular records concerning a specific topic or subject matter that might meet his requirements. I would suggest that the applicant take the Council up on its offer of assistance to help him frame a new request in such a way that he might obtain the information he needs for legal reasons and that the new request does not fall to be refused due to the volume of records to be retrieved and examined.
Having carried out a review under section 22(2) of the FOI Act, I hereby affirm the decision of the Council to refuse the applicant’s request for all records relating to him under section 15(1)(c) of the FOI Act.
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.