Case number: OIC-103928-C4G1H9

Whether Revenue was justified in its decision to extend the period for consideration of the applicant’s FOI request under section 14 of the Act based on the number of records to which the request related

4 March 2021

Background

In a request dated 21 January 2021, the applicant sought access to any information which Revenue has retained on her between 2 April 2020 and 20 January 2021 concerning her employment with Revenue.

On 16 February 2021, Revenue informed the applicant that it was necessary to extend the period for consideration of her request by 4 weeks under section 14 of the FOI Act “due to the number of records for this request”.  On 17 February 2021, the applicant sought a review by this Office of Revenue’s decision as she deemed it questionable that the number of records involved could merit an extension.

On 24 February 2021, Revenue issued three separate decision letters to the applicant, one each from its Business Division, its Corporate Services Division and the Revenue Solicitors Office. Nevertheless, following contact from this Office, the applicant indicated that she wishes to proceed with a review of Revenue’s decision to extend the time for considering her request, notwithstanding that it can have no material difference at this stage to the processing of her 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 Revenue and the applicant as outlined above and to correspondence between this Office and both Revenue and the applicant on the matter.

Scope of Review

This review is concerned solely with whether Revenue’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.

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, under section 14(1), it may extend that four week period by up to four further weeks where it considers that

a) the request relates to such number of records, or
b) the number of other FOI requests relating either to the record or records to which the specified request relates or to information corresponding to that to which the specified request relates or to both that have been made to the body concerned before the specified request was made to it and in relation to which a decision under section 13 has not been made is such, that compliance with section 13(1) within the four weeks specified is not reasonably possible.

In its submission to this Office, Revenue said the applicant’s request follows a previous FOI request and a Data Access Request where it scheduled and made decisions on 312 records. It said the records sought are personnel and case management records which are held in Revenue’s Business Division, Corporate Services Division (CSD), the Revenue Solicitors Office (RSO) and externally in PeoplePoint. It said the request is a follow-on request from a previous Data Access Request (DAR) which covered the period up to 2 September 2020. It said the timelines for the two requests therefore overlapped by a period of five months. It said this meant that the search, retrieval and decision making in relation to the current request had to incorporate a fresh search in relation to the records that were the subject of the previous DAR to ensure all relevant records were included for consideration. Revenue said this was particularly burdensome in relation to the hard copy legal advice file that was held in the RSO which contained in the region of two thousand records. It said that it was on this basis that the request was deemed to relate to such number of records that compliance with the four week timeline set out in the FOI Act was not reasonably possible.

Revenue explained that the number of records eventually identified as falling within the scope of the request for consideration and decision was 38, consisting of 221 pages. It said that this does not reflect the time and effort involved in reviewing all the records that could potentially fall within the scope of the request. Revenue said that had the applicant limited her request to the period from 2 September 2020 on the basis that the records up to that point had already been considered, the number of records that needed to be considered in relation to this request would have been considerably reduced.

Revenue explained that the relevant records in this case are held in both electronic and hard copy format. It said that the RSO maintains a hard copy legal advice file in line with their case management procedures. Revenue said that it was necessary to search and retrieve the entire hard copy file to determine which records fell within the scope of the request. It said the divisions conducted searches of all Revenue systems, drives, databases, paper files and email accounts of staff in the relevant areas.

Revenue said that apart from the staff in the Freedom of Information Unit and PeoplePoint, six staff were involved in processing the applicant’s request, with a combined time input of 48 hours. It said it issued decision letters on the applicant’s request from the three divisions referred to above.

In relation to other factors affecting its decision to extend the time for dealing with the applicant’s request, Revenue said it is experiencing disruption to some services due to COVID-19. These relate in particular to the level 5 restrictions on workplace attendance following Government advice on office closures. As mentioned above, it said that a hard copy file is held in the RSO which required a physical inspection by a Revenue solicitor. Due to health and safety reasons, a maximum of ten staff may attend the premises on any given day. All staff attending the office must have advance clearance and are permitted to attend for as long as is strictly necessary to complete the relevant work. Depending on the number of requests to attend a specific business premises, as well as the need to organise for key holders to open the building on a given day, the granting of clearance may take some time. Between the hard copy and soft copy files, the number of records to be considered by the RSO was in the region of about two thousand records. Each individual record had to be retrieved and reviewed to ascertain if it was within the scope of the request, and a decision made on whether to release or withhold the record in each case.

In conclusion Revenue said it applied section 14(1)(a) of the FOI Act to extend the time for issuing a decision to the applicant by 4 weeks due to the number of records that were the subject of her request. Revenue said it issued its decision letters to the applicant on 24 February 2021, effectively extending the time by five days.

I am satisfied, from the detailed description provided by Revenue of the steps it had to take to ensure that all relevant records had been identified, that it was justified in its decision to extend the time-frame for issuing a decision in this case. The fact that the number of records eventually identified was not significant does not change the fact that a substantial number of records had to be examined to ensure that all relevant records were identified.

I find that Revenue’s decision to extend the period for considering the applicant’s request was in accordance with the provisions of section 14(1)(a).

Decision

Having carried out a review under section 22(2) of the FOI Act, I hereby affirm Revenue’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.

 

Stephen Rafferty

Senior Investigator