Case number: OIC-131796-B0T3S5
3 January 2023
In a request dated 26 September 2022, the applicant sought access to any records held by Tusla concerning her daughters for the period October 2021 to the date of the request.
On 21 October 2022, Tusla 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 as the volume of records involved was such that processing them would require an extended deadline. On 22 October 2022, the applicant sought a review by this Office of Tusla’s decision.
In correspondence with this Office, Tusla said that it contacted the applicant by email on 4 November 2022 to inform her that there was an overlapping timeframe in relation to a previous request relating to the same records. It said that for this reason, Tusla would only consider relevant records that were dated between April 2022 and October 2022. Tusla said it sent an email on 1 December 2022 stating that it would be proceeding on the basis set out in the email of 4 November.
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 Tusla and the applicant as outlined above and to correspondence between this Office and both Tusla and the applicant on the matter.
This review is concerned solely with whether Tusla’s decision to extend the time frame for considering the applicant’s request was in accordance with the provisions of section 14 of the FOI Act.
I should explain that section 25(3) requires this Office to take all reasonable precautions to prevent the disclosure of exempt material in the performance of its functions. I am therefore required to limit the level of detail I can give in describing the records involved. Equally, I must limit my description of Tusla’s submission regarding why it extended the time frame for considering the applicant’s request.
I note that in the course of this review, the applicant sought an internal review from Tusla as it had not responded to her request by the extended deadline. It is my understanding that Tusla intended to issue an internal review decision once it has finished processing the records involved. I note that Tusla contacted this Office to notify it that the internal review decision was issued by registered post on 30 December 2022. However, I also understand from correspondence from the applicant that she has not yet received the internal review decision in this case. It is, of course, open to the applicant to apply to this Office for a review on the basis of a deemed refusal if Tusla has not met the relevant deadline. It is also open to her to apply to this Office for a review if she is not satisfied with any aspect of Tusla’s internal review decision.
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, Tusla said that the records sought are personal records relating to the applicant and her daughters, and these are held in one of Tusla’s Social Work Departments and its Fostering Resource Unit. It said that extensive record searches and retrieval took place within Tusla’s systems to identify records falling within the scope of the request. It listed ten different categories of records which it would expect to be held on files of the type sought in this case. My understanding is that the different types of files are held on different systems.
Tusla said that the Social Work Office alone spent approximately six hours extracting records from its systems before further identifying and retrieving specific records from those extracted. It said that social work records are stored within Tusla’s NCCIS electronic records system, and records relating to Fostering Services are stored separately. It said that extraction of records from NCCIS, which is not a purpose-built case management system, involves a time-consuming process of downloading and printing from several different programmes from within the system. It said that printed records then require scanning for further retrieval of relevant entries for content examination and, where necessary, application of exemption(s).
Tusla in its submissions further stated that the processing of this request involved co-ordination between two separate Tusla Offices, both of which have high demand for service delivery and request processing. It said that the record content requires specialist skills to determine appropriate consultation paths and release considerations due to their sensitive subject matter and release implications for third parties. It said that most of the records relevant to the request are held by the Social Work Department, and at the time of its submission, processing time had “exceeded 70 hours”.
Tusla said that approximately 1,408 records were being examined to enable a response to issue to the applicant. It said that these records contain matters of a personal and sensitive nature relating not only to the requester and her daughters, but other third parties. It stated that some of the records relate to Court proceedings. It also said that internal consultation has been necessary to identify records that were prepared for the Courts and to determine whether release of those records would be in contempt of court. Tusla also said that there were several other FOI requests involving “large and sensitive record sets” being processed in the same areas from different requesters. It said that the applicant as well as other parties had submitted nine FOI requests for records relating to her daughters since May 2021 and these requests had, on occasion, included overlapping timeframes. Tusla also said that the level of request activity had placed a considerable demand upon the respective departments and staff involved. 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.
In conclusion Tusla said it applied section 14(1)(a) of the FOI Act to extend the time for issuing a decision to the applicant by four weeks due to the number of records that were the subject of her request.
It is important to note that section 14 does not provide for a decision to extend the time to process a request on the basis of the number of other unrelated FOI requests for a large amount of records received by the FOI body, as referenced by Tusla in its submissions. However, I am satisfied, from the description provided by Tusla of the steps it had to take to ensure that all relevant records had been identified, as well as the number of records that required processing, that it was justified in its decision to extend the time-frame for issuing a decision in this case. Accordingly, I find that Tusla’s decision to extend the period for considering the applicant’s request was in accordance with the provisions of section 14(1)(a).
Having carried out a review under section 22(2) of the FOI Act, I hereby affirm Tusla’s decision to extend the period for consideration of the applicant’s request under section 14(1)(a) of the FOI Act 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.