Case number: 180331
4 December 2018
By email dated 6 July 2018 to the Council's Housing Officer, the applicant sought all details held in relation to her or her household. She asked the Council to contact her if her request was too wide or unclear as she was aware that the Council would be required to advise and assist her. On the same day, the Council contacted the applicant and asked her to be more specific about what she was seeking. It asked if she was seeking access to her housing allocation file. In response, the applicant stated that she was seeking access to her housing file in addition to all other information held about her, her household, or her family "by all of Cork City Council". The Council then asked the applicant what other sections she had dealings with apart from the housing section. The applicant did not address that issue.
On 12 July 2018, the Council's Housing Directorate contacted the applicant to seek further details, in particular with regard to housing records sought. It explained that possible records might include her application for social housing/transfers, rent information, maintenance requests, and/or records held by the Area Management Office. It asked the applicant for her assistance in establishing the specific records sought. In response, the applicant stated that her request was not housing specific and that she wanted all information the Council have about her or her family. The Housing Directorate replied and again sought more specific details as to the types of housing records sought and also suggested a specific time-frame for the request. In response, the applicant stated that she would not put any time frame on the information but that the information would "start in April 2002". She again reiterated that she wanted a copy of everything held about her or her family and that this is as specific as she would get.
On 17 July 2018, the Council informed the applicant that a preliminary search of emails held was carried out using her name and address as search terms. It stated that 821 emails were found under her name and 1021 emails were found under her address, and that this was before any search of manual files or other electronic records was carried out. It referred to the provisions of section 15(1)(c) which allow a public body to refuse a request in circumstances where granting the request would cause a substantial and unreasonable interference with work of the body. It asked the applicant to revise her request so that it could be processed. It asked if the time-scale could be shortened or if the request could be confined to a particular section or for particular records.
The applicant refused to amend her request and instead sought an internal review, notwithstanding the fact that no decision had, at that stage been made by the Council. On 2 August 2018 the Council refused the request under section 15(1)(c). On the same day, the applicant sought an internal review of that decision, following which the Council affirmed its original decision. On 20 August 2018, the applicant sought a review by this Office of the Council’s decision.
During the course of this review, Ms Swanwick of this Office provided the applicant with the key details of the Council’s submission, in which it explained why it decided to refuse the request under section 15(1)(c), and she informed the applicant of her view that its decision was justified. The applicant indicated in her submission of 1 October 2018 that she did not agree with Ms Swanwick’s view. Accordingly, I have decided to conclude this case by way of formal binding decision.
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.
This review is concerned solely with whether the Council was justified in its decision to refuse the applicant’s request for all records relating to her or her household under section 15(1)(c) of the FOI Act.
Section 15(1)(c) allows a public body to 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 the records concerned as to cause a substantial and unreasonable interference with, or disruption of, its work, including disruption of work in a particular functional area. However, section 15(4) provides that a body cannot refuse a request under section 15(1)(c) unless it has first assisted, or offered to assist, the requester in amending the request so that it would no longer fall to be refused under section 15(1)(c).
Section 15(1)(c) is an explicit acknowledgement of the fact that FOI bodies should not be required to undertake the processing of FOI requests where to do so would place an unreasonable burden on what are often limited resources.
In its submission to this Office, the Council explained that a search of emails held on its server was carried out using the applicant's name and address as search terms and almost 2000 emails were found. It stated that had email searches been carried out in respect of the names of other family members, further emails may also have been found. It also stated that, in addition to the emails found, other relevant electronic and manual records, some of which would likely be stored off-site, may exist.
In subsequent correspondence with this Office, the Council explained that relevant records would be held by its Housing and Finance Directorates. It outlined, that while the Finance Directorate would hold records pertaining to refuse charges, the majority of relevant records, both electronic (including the almost 2000 emails) and manual, would be held by the Housing Directorate. It stated that the other Directorates within the Council had confirmed that they did not hold relevant records.
The Council stated that the Housing Directorate is comprised of different sections which are responsible different aspects of housing, including: Housing Allocations, Housing Maintenance, Housing Welfare, Housing Rents, Housing Loans and Grants, Anti-Social Behaviour, Housing Assistance Payment and Rental Accommodation Scheme. It explained that each of these sections hold their own files and there is not one specific file where all housing records are kept.
The applicant argued that, given her interactions with the Council, there should be significantly less emails held by the Council than those identified. In this regard, the Council outlined to this Office that the searches undertaken were carried out on all emails to and from the Council and were not confined to the applicant being the sender of the emails. The Council also stated that, given the relevant timeframe is sixteen years and the applicant’s view that she had sent less than a dozen emails to the Council, it would be necessary to examine the emails identified to ascertain whether they contained information that would be exempt under the provisions of the FOI Act.
The Council estimated that it would take approximately 33 hours to retrieve and examine the emails found. It stated that this work would be allocated to its FOI Officer, who is assigned to its Corporate and External Affairs Directorate. It argued that the estimated time required is not sustainable, as it would equate to working exclusively on this request for almost one week, resulting in an unreasonable interference with the work of the FOI Officer, and impacting on the time available for other requests and duties. I note that the time taken does not include any additional time that would be spent retrieving and examining hard copy records.
In the circumstances, having regard to the Council’s explanation of the number of records concerned and the time and resources that would be required to retrieve and examine those records, I 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 functional area. I find, therefore, that the Council was justified in deciding that section 15(1)(c) should apply.
However, that is not the end of the matter. Section 15(4) provides that an FOI body cannot refuse a request under section 15(1)(c) unless it has first assisted, or offered to assist, the requester in amending the request so that it would no longer fall to be refused under section 15(1)(c).
While the Act is silent on the precise nature or level of the assistance to be offered under section 15(4), 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.
I might add that while there is an onus on FOI bodies to assist, or 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 and nature 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 on a particular matter, becomes apparent.
As set out in the background section of this decision, there were quite a number of exchanges of correspondence between the parties concerning the scope of the request. Having regard to those exchanges, I am satisfied that the Council offered reasonable assistance to the applicant to refine her request and provided examples of how this might be done. However, the applicant refused to do so. In the circumstances, I am satisfied that the Council has fulfilled the requirements under section 15(4).
In conclusion, therefore, I find that the Council was justified in its decision to refuse the applicant’s request for all records relating to her or her household under section 15(1)(c) of the FOI Act on the ground that processing the request would cause a substantial and unreasonable interference with or disruption of its work.
If the applicant wishes to obtain access to specific records about her, it remains open to her to submit a new, refined request to the Council.
Having carried out a review under section 22(2) of the FOI Act, I hereby affirm the decision of the Council 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.