Case number: OIC-53502-D4F0C9 (190239)
3 December 2019
The applicant submitted an FOI request on 12 November 2014 for access to records held by the Agency concerning her “social work file and records from childhood and during the period she was in care”. In a decision of October 2016, the Agency granted access to a number of records and refused access in full and in part to others under section 29 (Deliberations of FOI bodies), section 35 (Information obtained in confidence) and section 37 (Personal information) of the FOI Act.
The applicant applied for an internal review in January 2019, following correspondence with the Agency in the period from 2017. The applicant’s solicitors stated that records were missing. In its internal review decision, the Agency affirmed the original decision but did not refer to the applicant’s request relating to missing records.
During the review the Agency stated that it had located further records on its electronic database (SWIS). It said that while the records were not included in its internal review, they “have been processed and will be released to the [applicant]”.
Also during the review, the Agency revised its position and stated that additional records were released and that it now refused access in full and in part to all the remaining records under section 37 of the FOI Act only.
I consider that this review should now be brought to a close by the issue of a formal, binding decision. In conducting my review, I have had regard to submissions received from the Agency and to correspondence between the applicant, the Agency and this Office. I have also had regard to the content of the records at issue and to the provisions of the FOI Act. The applicant was invited to make a submission but none was received.
This review is concerned with whether the Agency was justified in deciding to refuse access in full and in part, to the records on the basis of section 37(1) of the FOI Act
When a record is released under the FOI Act, it effectively amounts to disclosure to the world at large, as the Act places no restrictions on the type or extent of the subsequent use to which a record may be put.
Section 13(4) of the Act requires that, subject to the Act, any reasons a requester gives for making a request shall be disregarded. This means that the applicant's motivation cannot be considered except insofar as this might be relevant to the consideration of public interest provisions.
Section 18(1) of the Act provides for the deletion of exempt information and the granting of access to a copy of a record with such exempt information removed. However, this should be done where it is practicable to do so and where the copy of the record thus created would not be misleading. The Commissioner takes the view that the provisions of section 18 do not envisage or require the extracting of particular sentences or occasional paragraphs from records for the purpose of granting access to those particular sentences or paragraphs. Generally speaking, therefore, the Commissioner is not in favour of the cutting or "dissecting" of records to such an extent.
Although I am obliged to give reasons for my decision, section 25(3) of the FOI Act requires me to take all reasonable precautions in the course of a review to prevent disclosure of information contained in an exempt record. This means that the extent to which I can describe the contents of the records is limited.
Section 37- Personal Information
Section 37(1) of the FOI Act provides for the refusal of a request where access to the record sought would involve the disclosure of personal information relating to an individual or individuals other than the requester. For the purposes of the Act, personal information is defined as information about an identifiable individual that (a) would, in the ordinary course of events, be known only to the individual or their family or friends or, (b) is held by a public body on the understanding that it would be treated by it as confidential. The FOI Act details fourteen specific categories of information that is personal, without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing definition, including "(xii) the name of the individual where it appears with other personal information relating to the individual or where disclosure of the name would, or would be likely to, establish that any personal information held by the public body concerned relates to the individual".
Section 37(7) provides that a request shall be refused where access to a record would, in addition to involving disclosure of personal information relating to the requester, also involve the disclosure of personal information of other individuals (joint personal information).
I cannot discuss the content of the records in any detail. However, I can state that the information withheld in the records is personal information about third parties other than the applicant, or personal information concerning third parties that is inextricably linked to personal information about the applicant.
Accordingly, I find the records to be exempt under section 37(1) of the FOI Act.
There are some further circumstances, provided for at section 37(2), in which the exemption at section 37(1) does not apply. Section 37(7) is also subject to sections 37(2)(b) to (e). I am satisfied that none of these are relevant in this case.
Section 37(5) of the FOI Act provides that a request that would fall to be refused under section 37(1) may still be granted where, on balance (a) the public interest that the request should be granted outweighs the right to privacy of the individual to whom the information relates, or (b) the grant of the information would be to the benefit of the person to whom the information relates.
I am satisfied that the release of the information at issue would not be to the benefit of the individuals concerned and that section 37(5)(b) does not apply.
In considering the public interest test in section 37(5)(a), I must have regard to the judgment of the Supreme Court in the case of The Governors and Guardians of the Hospital for the Relief of Poor Lying-In Women v. The Information Commissioner (the Rotunda judgment), available at www.oic.ie. In its judgment, the Supreme Court outlined the approach that the Commissioner should take when balancing the public interest in granting access to personal information with the public interest in upholding the right to privacy of the individual(s) to whom that information relates. Following the approach of the Supreme Court, “a true public interest recognised by means of a well-known and established policy, adopted by the Oireachtas, or by law” must be distinguished from a private interest for the purpose of section 37(5)(a).
The FOI Act itself reflects a public interest in ensuring the openness and accountability of public bodies regarding how they conduct their business. Thus, in this case, I find that there is a general public interest in openness and accountability as to the manner in which the Agency carried out its functions. On the other hand, the FOI Act recognises a very strong public interest in protecting privacy rights in the language of section 37. It is also worth noting that the right to privacy also has a Constitutional dimension as one of the unenumerated personal rights under the Constitution. Privacy rights will therefore be set aside only where the public interest served by granting the request (and breaching those rights) is sufficiently strong to outweigh the public interest in protecting privacy. In FP v. The Information Commissioner  IECA19, the Court of Appeal found that the Commissioner was correct in bearing in mind when balancing the public interest, the fact that release of information under FOI is potentially a release to the “world at large”.
I cannot identify a public interest which would override the Constitutional rights to privacy of the third parties to whom the information in the records relate. As regards section 37(5)(a), as mentioned earlier, the public interest in openness and transparency in how the Agency dealt with the applicant has been served to a large extent by the release of information in the records to her, where such parts of the records contain solely her personal information. I therefore find that the public interest in granting the request does not override the public interest in upholding the privacy rights of other individuals involved.
Accordingly, I find that section 37(1) of the Act applies to the records.
Having carried out a review under section 22(2) of the Freedom of Information Act 2014, I hereby affirm the decision of the Agency to refuse access in full and in part to the withheld information in the records under section 37 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.