Case number: OIC-92501-X1V0N3
5 October 2020
According to the Courts Service, the applicant in this case was a party to High Court proceedings that were subsequently remitted from the High Court to the Circuit Court, following which the case references were apparently changed. The Courts Service explained that as part of the Circuit Court’s internal procedures, each case is allocated a file number and the Circuit Court then proceeds in the matter as if the application had been made to it in the first instance.
It appears that the applicant was either unaware of or did not understand the reasons for the subsequent change to the case reference arising from the remittal of the case to the Circuit Court. Accordingly, on 17 April 2020, she submitted a request to the Courts Service for access to (i) all documentation on file with her name mentioned on it, (ii) the source and origin of a court record that contained a specific reference number (iii) the source, origin, and content of a file mentioned in correspondence from the Circuit Court dated 1 April, and (iv) records of correspondence from the High Court or named solicitors on which her name appears.
On 23 April 2020, the Courts Service refused the request under section 42(a)(i) of the FOI Act on the ground that the Act does not apply to records held by the courts that relate to a court or to proceedings in a court. It also provided details as to how an application for access to court records may be made outside of the FOI process.
On 24 April 2020, the applicant wrote to the Courts Service, arguing that section 42(a)(i) was not relevant to her request. She indicated that she had no knowledge of why there would be Circuit Court records relating to her. It appears that she then sent further similar correspondence to the Courts Service Customer Complaints Unit on 1 May 2020, wherein she restated her request.
On 8 May 2020, the Courts Service responded to both emails. It restated its position that the records sought would not be released by virtue of section 42(a)(i). Among other things, it also stated that as the applicant had now submitted three FOI requests on the same topic, further FOI requests would be refused on the ground that they would be deemed frivolous or vexatious.
The applicant replied to the Courts Service on 9 May 2020 outlining her belief that her request had been misunderstood and that she was merely seeking access to the High Court record of her High Court case in which she was a lay litigant. She said she had been unable to access the High Court record as her access to the record was cut off in mid January 2020.
In its response of 15 May 2020, the Courts Service reiterated its position that “all records relating to court proceedings are considered court records and are therefore not releasable in accordance with section 42(a)(i) of the FOI Act”. In a subsequent email response, the applicant explained that she was seeking an explanation of why the High Court online search indicates that there is no case with the number she had used previously.
On 19 May 2020, the applicant sought a review by this Office. While she claimed that the Courts Service had not explained why her access to the case on the High Court system had been cut off, she also said that she had not been given the documentation sought concerning the Circuit Court reference.
When this Office informed the Courts Service of receipt of the application for review the Courts Service argued that the applicant had not sought an internal review of the decision to refuse her request. Accordingly, this Office explained that it was open to her to do so.
On 25 May 2020, the applicant wrote to the Courts Service requesting an internal review of what she described as its refusal to reinstate her access to the High Court search online database for the identified court record number. In response, the Courts Service stated that she had not made a valid internal review request and that only internal review requests of its decisions dated 23 April 2020, 8 May 2020, and 15 May 2020 were valid. Nevertheless, outside of the FOI process, it provided an explanation as to why the identified High Court record number had been removed from the High Court search facility.
The applicant responded to the Courts Service on 28 May 2020. It would appear that she did not understand the explanation provided as she repeated her request for an explanation as to why the case was no longer available through the search facility. In response, the Courts Service simply noted that she had now made nine separate FOI requests on the matter and that it would consider any further requests to be frivolous and vexatious. It noted that it was still open to the applicant to seek an internal review of a decision of the Courts Service.
On 5 June 2020, the applicant sought a review by this Office of the Courts Service’s decision. She outlined that she was seeking to have her access to the High Court search online database for the identified court record number reinstated or, in the alternative, the court records for the case forwarded to her.
Having examined the correspondence described above in the context of this review, I am satisfied that the applicant’s email of 24 April 2020 could reasonably have been regarded as a request for an internal review of the refusal of her original request. As such, I am satisfied that it was appropriate to continue the review on that basis.
I have decided to bring this review to a close by way of a formal, binding decision. In conducting my review, I have had regard to the correspondence between the Courts Service and the applicant outlined above and to correspondence between this Office and both the Courts Service and the applicant on the matter.
While the applicant initially referred to specified Circuit Court proceedings in relation to records sought, it is apparent to me that the applicant did not understand the significance of the matter having been transferred to the Circuit Court and that she was in effect, seeking an explanation as to why, as she saw it, her access to details of the High Court proceedings on the online search facility had been wrongly removed. Given the wording of her original request, the two case reference numbers are relevant.
The scope of this review is concerned solely with whether the Courts Service was justified in refusing, under section 42(a)(i) of the FOI Act, access to the records sought relating to the specified court proceedings.
I would note, however that in its correspondence of 28 May 2020, the Courts Service did, indeed also explain why access to the relevant case on the High Court online search facility was no longer available. In essence, access had the case details had previously been available due to an error as they should not have been available due to the in camera nature of the proceedings. When the error was noticed, the case details were removed from the system.
It is important to note that this Office has no role in the investigation of complaints regarding the manner in which FOI bodies perform their functions generally, or to act as an alternative dispute resolution mechanism with respect to actions taken by FOI bodies. I understand that the applicant has received records from the Courts Service outside of the FOI process and she has also been in contact with the Office of the Ombudsman.
Section 42(a)(i) provides that, subject to two exceptions, the FOI Act does not apply to records held by the courts which relate to a court or to proceedings in a court. The first exception concerns records relating to proceedings in a court held in public, where the records were not created by the court and where disclosure of the records to the general public is not prohibited by the court.
The second exception concerns records relating to the general administration of the courts or the offices of the courts. While the Act is silent on the meaning of general administration, this Office considers that it clearly refers to records which have to do with management of the courts or the offices of the courts, such as records relating to personnel, pay matters, recruitment, accounts, information technology, accommodation, internal organisation, office procedures and the like.
The records sought in this case relate to identified court record numbers. As such, it is clear that they are held by the courts and relate to proceedings in a court. The Courts Service, in its submissions to this Office, outlined that the court proceedings in question are required by law under section 119 of the Succession Act 1965 to be held in camera i.e. in private or otherwise than in public.
Accordingly, I am satisfied that the records sought in this case are records held by the courts and that neither of the exceptions described above apply. I find that the that the Courts Service was justified in its decision to refuse access to the records sought under section 42(a)(i) of the FOI Act.
Having carried out a review under section 22(2) of the FOI Act, I hereby affirm the decision of the Courts Service to refuse access to certain records relating to specified court proceedings under section 42(a)(i) on the ground that the Act does not apply to the records sought.
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.