Case number: OIC-91463-M9F2N7
29 September 2020
The applicant in this case was a student in a Social Science course in UCC between 2005 and 2008. In a request dated 31 October 2019, she sought access to all records held relating to her. On 10 December 2019, UCC issued its decision in which it granted the request subject to the redaction of certain information relating to other students from a number of the records under section 37 of the FOI Act.
On 6 January 2020, the applicant sought an internal review of that decision based on her view that further relevant records should have been released. On 23 April 2020, UCC issued its internal review decision in which it stated that no further relevant records exist. On 29 April 2020, the applicant sought a review by this Office of UCC’s decision.
During the course of the review, the Investigating Officer provided the applicant with the details of the searches carried out by UCC and of its explanation as to why no further relevant records could be found or exist. She informed the applicant of her view that UCC was justified in refusing access to any further relevant records under section 15(1)(a) of the FOI and invited her to make a submission on the matter. To date, no response has been received. Therefore, I consider it appropriate to conclude this review by way of a formal, binding decision. In carrying out my review, I have had regard to the correspondence between UCC and the applicant as outlined above and to correspondence between this Office and both UCC and the applicant on the matter.
This review is concerned solely with whether UCC was justified in refusing the applicant’s request for access to additional records relating to her on the ground that no further relevant records exist or can be found.
Section 15(1)(a) of the FOI Act provides for the refusal of a request where the records sought do not exist or cannot be found after all reasonable steps to ascertain their whereabouts have been taken. In such cases, the role of this Office is to review the decision of the FOI body and to decide whether that decision was justified. This means that I must have regard to the evidence available to the decision maker and the reasoning used by the decision maker in arriving at his/her decision and I also must assess the adequacy of the searches conducted by the FOI body in looking for relevant records.
During the course of this review, UCC provided submissions to this Office. As this Office has already provided the applicant with those details, I do not propose to repeat them in full here. In short, UCC submitted that the School of Applied Social Studies, the School of Applied Psychology, the Department of Sociology, the Centre for Policy Studies, the Student Records and examinations Office, the former Dean and his former personal assistant and the Student Assistance Fund all carried out searches in relation to this request. It said these academic departments were the only ones with whom the applicant would have had contact with. The searches were carried out by the former Dean, his personal assistant and the Student Assistance Fund because of specific information the applicant had provided to it. UCC confirmed that the applicant’s former third year project supervisor in the School of Applied Social Studies searched her records. The applicant’s supervisor acknowledged that she more than likely would have kept notes of supervision meetings but as these occurred over twelve years ago, any such notes would have long been destroyed. UCC said that both electronic and physical searches were undertaken. It outlined that searches were conducted using a variation of the applicant’s name and student ID number. It said that no further records other than those previously released to the applicant were found.
UCC highlighted that it would not be expected that records be held for such a long period after the student left the University. It outlined that as part of its record management policy, the University has a series of guidance which support the controlled destruction of records by schools, departments and units. While not compulsory, the disposal authorities indicate that most records relating to students which a school may hold (such as admission, deferral, variation, assessment work, discontinuance) may be destroyed within 6 months to 2 years. It outlined that given the significant period of time which elapsed since the applicant left UCC, it was unlikely that records of the nature sought would be retained.
It is, in essence, UCC’s position that no further relevant records can be found or do not exist apart from those already released. It is important to note that the FOI Act is concerned with access to records held by public bodies. If the record sought is not held by the body then that is the end of the matter, regardless of whether or not the requester believes that the record ought to exist.
Having considered the details of the searches undertaken and its explanation as to why no further records exist or can be found, I am satisfied that UCC has carried out all reasonable steps in an effort to ascertain the whereabouts of all relevant records coming within the scope of the applicant’s request. I find, therefore, that UCC was justified in refusing access to any additional records on the ground that no further relevant records exist or can be found after all reasonable steps to ascertain their whereabouts have been taken.
Having carried out a review under section 22(2), I hereby affirm UCC’s refusal of the applicant’s request for further records relating to her apart from those already released under section 15(1)(a) of the FOI Act on the ground that no further relevant records exist or can be found.
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 no later than four weeks after notice of the decision was given to the person bringing the appeal.