Case number: OIC-139955-H2P6W7
11 August 2023
In a request dated 29 May 2023, the applicant sought access to all records relating to her. On 27 June 2023, UCC informed the applicant that it was necessary to extend the period for consideration of her request by four weeks under section 14 of the FOI Act. On the same day, the applicant sought a review by this Office of UCC’s decision. I understand that UCC issued its decision on the applicant’s request on 27 July 2023. The substantive decision is not the subject of this review. I note therefore, that this decision can have no tangible benefit for either party.
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 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’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.
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.”
UCC is relying on section 14(1)(a) in this case.
In its submissions to this Office, UCC said that it received a data subject access request (SAR) from the applicant seeking access to all records containing her personal data on 22 September 2022. UCC stated that a very large number of records were identified on foot of the SAR. It said that many of the records concerned related to claims relating to, or potentially relating to, legal claims and processes, while many others contained the personal data of third parties. It said that it sought external legal advice, including on the application of exemptions and redaction of certain information in line with data protection legislation, which proved to be a lengthy process. I understand that UCC issued a response to the applicant’s SAR on 30 June 2023, wherein it released a number of records.
By way of background, UCC stated that the applicant is a UCC employee. It said that the records sought included a high volume of email correspondence and notes relating to various complaints, disciplinary and dispute resolution processes which the applicant has been involved in since 2019. UCC said that these processes are complex and ongoing. It said that accordingly, relevant records are held across numerous departments in the University, including, but not limited to, Human Resources, the Registrar’s Office, the President’s Office and the Office of Corporate and Legal Affairs.
UCC stated that given that the issues to which the records sought relate, a number of staff across the University had to be asked to search for relevant records. UCC said that the Information Compliance Unit (which processes FOI and Data Access requests), along with the relevant offices holding the records was “heavily committed” over a number of weeks in collating the information sought.
In its submissions to this Office, UCC also stated that the lack of engagement from the applicant and her solicitors in relation to her initial request in September 2022, together with the number of requests made impacted the length of time taken to conclude the decision-making process in this case.
UCC stated that it was processing the applicant’s data access request when it received her FOI request. It said that in processing the SAR over 1,500 pages of correspondence were collated, compiled and assessed. In response to a query by the Investigating Officer, UCC confirmed that the majority of the relevant records in the FOI request were already collated due to the applicant’s SAR. UCC stated that before it assessed the response to the FOI requested it decided to continue process the data access request as the FOI request was largely concerned with the same information and records. It said that given the volume of records concerned, and the requirement to respond to the previously-received SAR, it applied the section 14 extension of time in order to consider the FOI request while also endeavouring, within part of the same timeframe, to respond in full to a complicated SAR request.
Analysis and Findings
The circumstances in which an FOI body may extend the four-week period for processing a request are quite narrow and specific. Section 14 does not provide for extensions of the time-frame for considering requests on the basis of other administrative challenges arising. Under section 14(1)(a), the body is entitled to extend the decision making period only where the request relates to such number of records that compliance with the four-week time-frame set out in section 13 is not reasonably possible.
The FOI Act provides no guidance on the number of records that might be involved before an extension can be appropriately applied. Therefore, each case must be considered on its merits based on the particular facts and circumstances. Nevertheless, the provision is clear that a decision to extend the period must be based on the number of records to which the request relates.
The thrust of UCC’s arguments in this case seem to relate to the difficulties it had processing a lengthy and time-consuming SAR for the applicant concerned. In its submissions to this Office, it stated that 1,500 pages of correspondence were identified and had to be reviewed and considered for release. It said that it estimated that “several hundred hours of work were put into dealing with these matters”. However, it also confirmed to this Office that the majority of the records relating to the applicant’s FOI request had already been collated in response to the applicant's earlier data access request. While I accept that its decision on the applicant’s SAR had not issued at the time she made her FOI request, and in fact, did not issue until after the 4-week deadline for responding to her new request, it seems to me that the majority of the records must have been collated at that stage. Furthermore, UCC has not made any argument that additional records had to be considered for release in this case. I accept that processing requests under GDPR and FOI require the consideration of different regimes and exemptions. However, it is important to note that section 14 does not provide for a decision to extend the time to process a FOI request on the basis of a requirement to process a SAR for similar records under the GDPR Act.
I understand that the applicant’s initial request in September 2022 was unclear whether she was seeking access to records under GDPR or FOI and that UCC informed her that it was proceeding on the basis that she made her request under GDPR. I also understand that it asked her to let it know if she objected to this, but that she did not respond. I also note UCC’s argument that the requirement to process multiple requests for the same or similar records added to the length of time required to process the request in this case. However, while section 14(1)(b) provides for a refusal on the basis that the number of other requests relating either to the record or records to which the specified request relates, such that compliance with section 13(1) within the four weeks specified is not reasonably possible, this only relates to FOI requests, not requests made under other statutory schemes.
In any event, as set out above, section 14(1)(a) solely provides for the extension of time to consider a request owing to the number of records. While the applicant’s request for access to “all records” relating to her could be considered to be quite broad, I note that UCC identified approximately 1,500 pages of relevant correspondence. I understand that these records were held electronically. I also note that UCC has not clarified how many records were actually released to the applicant with its substantive decision in this case. However, it appears that UCC’s collation and consideration of the records concerned was quite advanced when the applicant submitted her FOI request. Furthermore, UCC has not argued that it would have not been in a position to issue a decision on her FOI request within the four-week deadline if it had begun processing her request upon receipt.
It seems to me that UCC finalised its decision on the applicant’s SAR, at least in part, in the hope that she would be satisfied with the records released under GDPR and consider withdrawing her FOI request. Or in the alternative, it would be a simple matter to process the same records again, as they had already been collated and decisions made as to what was to be released.
UCC appears to have taken its decision to extend the time to consider the applicant’s FOI request in this case on a pragmatic basis. While I acknowledge the challenge of balancing competing priorities, the provisions of section 14 are very specific and do not allow for the extension of the period for consideration of a request because of other work priorities. In the circumstances of this case, UCC has not satisfied me that this was the reason it applied the extension concerned. Accordingly, while my findings in this case can have no tangible benefit for the applicant given that UCC has already issued its decision on her request, I find, with some reluctance, that UCC’s decision to extend the period for considering the applicant’s request was not in accordance with the provisions of section 14(1)(a) of the FOI Act.
Having carried out a review under section 22(2) of the FOI Act, I hereby annul UCC’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.