Chapter 1: The year in review

Table of Contents

Your right to information

On 14 October 2014, the Freedom of Information Act 2014 was signed into law by the President. The FOI Act 2014 replaces the Freedom of Information Acts 1997 and 2003.

The new Act applies to all public bodies (or FOI bodies as they are referred to in the Act) that conform to the definition of prescribed body in Section 6 of the Act, unless they are specifically exempt or part-exempt under the provisions of Section 42 or Schedule 1 of the Act. As new public bodies are established, they will automatically be subject to FOI unless they are specifically exempt by order made by the Minister. In general, bodies that are to be made subject to FOI for the first time under the Act will have 6 months from enactment before FOI is to apply.

The FOI Act 2014 provides for a general right of access to records held by public bodies and also provides that records should be released unless they are found to be exempt. The Act also gives people the right to have personal information about them held by public bodies corrected or updated and gives people the right to be given reasons for decisions taken by public bodies, where those decisions expressly affect them.

It is noteworthy that section 55 of the Act provides that any action commenced under the 1997 Act but not completed before the commencement of the 2014 Act shall continue to be performed and shall be completed as if the 1997 Act had not been repealed. Accordingly, many of the reviews being undertaken by my Office in 2015 will be completed under the provisions of the FOI Acts 1997 and 2003. Similarly, all of the work undertaken by my Office in 2014 was under the provisions of those Acts. Accordingly, all references to the FOI Act in this Report should, unless otherwise stated, be taken as references to the FOI Acts 1997 and 2003.

The European Communities (Access to Information on the Environment) Regulations 2007 to 2011 provide an additional means of access for people who want environmental information. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government has published a set of Guidance Notes which can be accessed via the website of the Commissioner for Environmental Information at www.ocei.gov.ie

Both access regimes are legally independent of each other, as are my roles of Information Commissioner and Commissioner for Environmental Information.

Introduction

This is my second Annual Report as Information Commissioner covering the period from 1 January 2014 to 31 December 2014 and represents my first complete year in Office. In Part II of this Report, I report on my work during the year as Commissioner for Environmental Information.

As Information Commissioner, I am very pleased to be able to report on significant improvements in productivity for the year. By any standards, 2014 was a very challenging year for my Office. At the beginning of the year there was a backlog of reviews amounting to an equivalent of one year’s work based on review completion rates for 2013 and my Office also faced the challenge of preparing for the introduction of the new FOI Act.

In last year’s Report, I explained that my Office had commenced a process of reform, involving a complete review of organisational structures and processes, with the intention of improving case turnaround times and increasing case throughput. That process was completed during the year and the revised structures were implemented in July. The resulting improvements in productivity have been significant. While I provide more detailed information on outputs later in this Chapter, it is worth noting some of the more significant achievements here.

The number of reviews completed in 2014 represents a 31% increase on the number completed in 2013 and a 70% increase on case closures for 2012. Furthermore, the percentage of all cases closed within four months has increased from 19% in 2012 and 26% in 2013 to 33% in 2014. During the year, I spoke of my aspiration of having no cases over a year old open at the end of 2014. I am pleased to note that the vast majority of those older cases have since been completed, with a small number of exceptions for reasons generally beyond the control of my Office.

I should add that while it took tremendous dedication and determined effort on the part of my staff to deliver such impressive improvements, they were ably assisted, in no small part, by the recruitment of a number of new staff members who have brought great enthusiasm and renewed vigour to the team. I am grateful to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform for having sanctioned the recruitment of badly needed additional staff members.

My staff also worked closely with the staff of the Central Policy Unit in the Department on the development of the new FOI Act. I was very pleased to note that the new Act reflected the vast majority of the suggestions for improvements that were made by my Office.

I also very much welcome the Government’s decision to abolish the €15 application fee for making FOI requests and to significantly reduce the fee for submitting review applications to my Office. My predecessor, Emily O’Reilly, and I have both publicly expressed our view that the fees in question acted as a disincentive to members of the public seeking access to information held by public bodies. As I said at the time of the announcement by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform of his proposal to eliminate and/or reduce the fees, I considered the charging of a fee to run contrary to the spirit and purpose of FOI which, as the long title to the FOI Act explains, is “to enable members of the public to obtain access, to the greatest extent possible consistent with the public interest and the right to privacy, to information in the possession of public bodies”. I also welcomed the fact that the decision to abolish the application fee brings Ireland’s FOI regime into line with its international counterparts.

The FOI regime is fundamental to the overall framework of Open Government and plays a very important role in developing a greater understanding of how decisions are taken by public bodies. Earlier in 2014, I stated that confidence in Government in Ireland had reached a low ebb following successive tribunals and the banking crisis. I noted that the perception that too many people in public life were seeking personal advantage rather than working to benefit the nation, led to a deep cynicism, which, if unchallenged, would have undermined our democracy. I also stated that in order to restore faith in the decision making of public bodies, it was necessary to shed light into the previously dark places where decisions were being made. I believe that the new Act has significantly extended the reach of the light. I am confident that with the appropriate participation of all parties, the Act can help rejuvenate the interest of members of the public in how Government works and in the decisions that affect us all in our daily lives. I comment more on the FOI Act 2014 in the next section of this Chapter.

To support the new Act, a Code of Practice was published by the Central Policy Unit in December 2014. The Code draws on proposals made by two expert groups on FOI, comprising a broad and varied range of representatives. My Office was represented on both groups. The Code is intended to assist all public bodies, including those that will be subject to FOI for the first time under the new Act.

The Code aims to support the achievement of the objectives of the FOI Act and it has a number of laudable objectives, including the promotion of best practice in public bodies in relation to the operation of FOI and guiding and informing the performance of public bodies in relation to their responsibilities under the FOI Act. I welcome the publication of the Code and I believe it will prove to be a valuable resource for public bodies in their efforts to deal effectively and efficiently with FOI requests.

I should say that my Office is also in the process of developing additional supports for public bodies. For example, it is intended that a suite of guidance notes, currently under development, will be publicly available on my Office’s website (www.oic.gov.ie) by the end of the year. These guidance notes will comprehensively set out how my Office interprets and applies the various exemptions in the new Act. I expect that they will serve public bodies well in their application of the provisions of the new Act.

In this Report, I comment on a number of issues that arose during 2014 and I highlight some significant cases that were dealt with by my Office. In Part II, I report on my role as Commissioner for Environmental Information.

Peter Tyndall
Information Commissioner
Commissioner for Environmental Information

Freedom of Information Act 2014

I was very pleased to see the FOI Act 2014 passed into law in October 2014. In her 2011 Annual Report, the former Commissioner reported that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform was working on the arrangements necessary to give effect to the commitments in the Programme for Government in relation to FOI. Significant effort and preparatory work was required to develop what I believe to be a comprehensive piece of legislation and I want to acknowledge the efforts of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in getting it over the line. I also want to express my appreciation of the positive engagements between the Department and my Office during the drafting of the new legislation.

The new Act contains a number of welcome improvements to the FOI regime, including a provision for FOI to apply to all public bodies unless specifically exempt. This means that a number of public bodies that were previously excluded from FOI are now under the scope of the legislation. Bodies such as An Garda Síochána, NAMA, the NTMA and the Central Bank are now included. My Office has been calling for the extension of FOI to such bodies for a number of years. The Act also provides for future application to non-public bodies that are in receipt of significant funding by the Exchequer and I look forward to developments in this area. In addition, when a new public body is established, it will automatically be subject to the provisions of the Act, although the Minister may make an order to specifically exclude certain bodies, in whole or in part.

As with the previous Act, the objective of the FOI Act 2014 is to ensure that official information is available to citizens to the greatest extent possible, consistent with the public interest and the right to privacy. In furtherance of this objective, the Act introduces key principles to guide public bodies in the performance of their functions under the new legislation, by requiring them to have regard to

  • the need to achieve greater openness in the activities of FOI bodies and to promote adherence by them to the principle of transparency in government and public affairs,
  • the need to strengthen the accountability and improve the quality of decision making of FOI bodies, and
  • the need to inform scrutiny, discussion, comment and review by the public of the activities of FOI bodies and facilitate more effective participation in consultations relating to the role, responsibilities and performance of FOI bodies.

There have been significant amendments to the FOI fees regime. I am particularly pleased that the requirement to pay a fee for making a request has been removed and that there has been a substantial reduction in the fee payable for applications made to my Office for review of decisions made by FOI bodies. The fees applicable to search and retrieval costs have also undergone a significant overhaul. The new Act provides that fees will apply only where the preparation time for a request exceeds 5 hours, and the fees will be capped at €500.

Another notable initiative in the new Act relates to the requirement on FOI bodies to prepare publication schemes that will set out the body’s role, responsibilities and activities. The publication scheme requires the publication of a greater level of information than had been required under the previous Act.

The introduction of the new Act has brought with it a specific challenge for my Office. The transitional provisions of the Act provide that any action commenced under the Act of 1997 but not completed before the new Act takes effect shall continue to be performed under the Acts of 1997 and 2003. Therefore, any FOI request submitted to an FOI body prior to 14 October 2014 must be reviewed by my Office under the provisions of the Act of 1997. As a result, my Office will operate under two separate legislative regimes for the foreseeable future. I accept, however, that this was the most practical solution for the processing of applications submitted before the passing of the new Act and I am confident that my staff will comfortably meet the challenge without undue interference with the progress already made in improving productivity.

Organisational Review

As I mentioned in my Introduction, my Office completed a reform process during 2014 culminating in the introduction of revised Office structures and work processes in July. Essentially, a small team was established to conduct a complete review of my Office’s structures and processes with a view to determining what changes, if any, might be made to improve productivity.

As a first step in the process, the team carried out fact-finding visits to the Offices of the Information Commissioner in the UK and in Scotland. The visits proved very useful in terms of identifying potential improvements, notwithstanding the fact that there were significant differences between the regime in operation in the UK and Scotland, and the Irish FOI regime. I want to personally thank the staff of those Offices for their invaluable contribution and for their encouragement and support.

As the next step in the process, the team conducted a detailed analysis of closed cases to determine what process improvements might be made. Following a comprehensive review of existing structures and processes, a suite of changes was proposed and agreed. One of the more fundamental changes proposed was the establishment of an Assessment Unit with responsibility for identifying and processing newly accepted review applications that appear capable of early resolution. This particular initiative has produced very promising initial results. Of all cases closed by the Assessment Unit in 2014, 60% were closed within four months.

Another initiative went to the heart of how my Office approaches reviews. The FOI Act places the onus on FOI bodies to satisfy me that a decision to refuse a request for access to records was justified. In essence, by providing a body with an opportunity to make submissions during the course of a review, the body has a third chance to consider its position, having previously been given the opportunity to do so at the initial and internal review decision-making stages. The process team had identified that there were occasions where my staff engaged in prolonged discussions in relation to the reasons for public bodies refusing requests. In many cases, my staff furnished detailed preliminary views to the bodies which effectively allowed them a further opportunity to present more detailed arguments for refusing a request. Under the revised process, FOI bodies are now informed that they should treat the opportunity to make a submission as a final chance to justify their decision.

Before the roll-out of the revised work processes, some of which were likely to impact on how we expect bodies to respond to our requests for information, my Office held a briefing session for those bodies who deal with significant numbers of FOI requests. The briefing session provided my Office with an opportunity to explain the rationale for our changes and allowed the bodies to raise any concerns or issues arising.

I am pleased to note the high level of compliance by the vast majority of public bodies with the new process requirements. While many public bodies already have a proven track record of best practice in their responses to requesters, I welcome a renewed level of engagement by many more bodies. Also, I have noticed an improvement in the response times of public bodies to requests from my Office. This in itself is of great assistance to my staff in their efforts to process applications for review and helps to achieve a faster throughput of cases.

I should say that the organisational review was not an end in itself. My Office intends to review the revised structures and work processes later this year to determine if they continue to offer the best options for optimising productivity. However, I am pleased to note that the early signs are very encouraging.

Statutory notices issued to public bodies

Notices issued under section 37 of the FOI Act

Under section 37 of the FOI Act, I can require a public body to provide me with any information in its possession or control that I deem to be relevant for the purposes of a review. The equivalent provision in the Act of 2014 is section 45. Each year I report on the number of statutory notices issued under section 37.

I fully appreciate the significant levels of cooperation by the vast majority of public bodies in responding to requests for information by my Office. While the question of whether or not a statutory notice should issue can arise at any stage during a review where an FOI body fails to respond to a request by my staff for relevant information, the matter is generally resolved informally with a telephone call, or email, between my staff and the relevant FOI Liaison Officer. This is a clear indicator that by maintaining appropriate channels of informal communication, the formal, statutory notice approach may be avoided. However, sometimes an informal follow-up contact does not suffice.

I am disappointed to have to report that my Office served nine statutory notices on public bodies in 2014. While this figure is small, relative to the number of engagements between my Office and public bodies, I am concerned to note a consistent pattern of non-compliance by some public bodies with their obligations under the FOI Act.

Chart-1-Section-37-Notices

The public bodies in receipt of section 37 notices in 2014 are the Irish Greyhound Board (three notices), University College Dublin (two), Cork County Council (one), Tipperary County Council (one), the Department of Justice and Equality (one) and the National Maternity Hospital (one).

It is a matter of some concern that four of the bodies in receipt of section 37 notices in 2014 were also the recipients of such notices in 2013. These are University College Dublin, the National Maternity Hospital, Cork County Council, and the Irish Greyhound Board. In fact, both University College Dublin and the National Maternity Hospital also featured in the 2012 Annual Report as recipients of section 37 notices.

University College Dublin (UCD)

In the case of UCD, my Office sought access to the records associated with two separate applications for review in December 2013. As the records were not provided, my Office issued two notices under section 37 to the President of UCD and asked for the records for both reviews to be forwarded by 25 February 2014.

The notice letters were acknowledged but neither set of records was received. Consequently, on 28 March 2014, the Director General of my Office wrote again to the President of UCD and the records were eventually submitted in early April.

National Maternity Hospital (NMH)

I mentioned in my 2013 Annual Report that my staff met with NMH during 2013 to discuss issues relating to its processing of FOI requests and that NMH outlined proactive measures that had been taken to ensure potential delays would be highlighted and addressed at the earliest opportunity. As such, it is even more frustrating to find that a section 37 notice was again required during 2014. Indeed, as I discuss below, NMH was also the recipient of a notice served under section 35, the first such notice my Office has served since 2004.

Cork County Council

My Office has noted examples of poor practice by Cork County Council in the processing of some FOI requests and in their dealings with my Office. In one case, the Council did not provide either the decision making records or the subject records to my Office in a timely manner. In that same case, my Office decided to issue a section 37 notice in April 2014 following an unsuccessful attempt to obtain further information deemed relevant to the review. The Council acknowledged receipt of the notice and one week later a further acknowledgement was received which explained that the matter was only then being considered by staff of the Council, seven weeks after the initial request for information had issued. My Office eventually received a response to the request three months after it had been made.

I am aware of other cases where the Council failed to adhere to statutory timeframes when processing FOI requests. While section 37 notices did not issue in those cases, it seem to me that there may be underlying issues concerning the attention afforded by the Council to the FOI regime. It remains a fact that the administration of FOI is a statutory function that should be afforded as much weight as any other statutory function. Indeed, it is noteworthy that the Code of Practice issued by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform describes FOI as “…a core function of the work of public bodies”. I intend to ask my staff to visit the Council’s Offices during the year to discuss its administration of the FOI process.

Irish Greyhound Board (IGB)

While section 37(1) requires public bodies to furnish relevant records or information to me, section 37(2) of the Act of 1997 empowers me to enter any premises occupied by a public body and require that any relevant information or records be made available to me.

While the former Commissioner came close to using her section 37(2) powers just once in her tenure, my Office had not previously found it necessary to actually enter a premises for the purposes of a review. However, this year, I have to report that circumstances left me with no choice but to use those powers for the first time. Consequently, I formally delegated responsibility to two of my staff to enter the premises of the IGB for the purposes of obtaining access to information that had been the subject of repeated requests from my Office.

From the very beginning of the review, my Office experienced a considerable delay in obtaining records from the IGB to allow even an initial examination. In fact, it took in excess of six months, and a substantial amount of effort on the part of my staff, for my Office to receive a properly presented set of records and a related schedule. An investigator from my Office was appointed to examine the matter. The investigator’s initial examination in this case and in another review concerning the IGB highlighted a number of issues, including delays by the IGB in dealing with requests, failing to provide records to this Office, poor decision making and case handling and failure to adhere to the provisions of the FOI Act.

The investigator also noted that during the course of the review, the IGB had appointed no fewer than three members of IGB staff to act as FOI officer and liaise with my Office at various stages. It was apparent that there was no clear handover of responsibilities or exchange of information between the FOI officers, a situation which I am certain contributed to the delay in the review process. In addition, it was clear from the records provided that the IGB had not in fact identified all the relevant information and records that came within the scope of the applicant’s original FOI request.

A substantial amount of correspondence, in the form of emails, letters and personal meetings is recorded in this case. All of the correspondence, from March to September 2014, records the attempts of the investigator to elicit a satisfactory response from the IGB, to enable a proper investigation of the matter. However, in late August 2014 the CEO of the IGB contacted my Office and spoke personally with the investigator on several occasions, in order to help bring about a satisfactory resolution of the ongoing problem. Notwithstanding the intervention of the CEO, I concluded that the most effective method of progressing the matter was to issue a notice under section 37(2) as a prior notice under section 37(1) did not prove successful. My Office wrote to the CEO on 8 September 2014 to make arrangements for my staff to visit the offices of IGB in Limerick. That visit took place, by arrangement and with the cooperation of the IGB, on 25 September 2014, in accordance with the provisions of section 37(2).

It is worth noting that the application for review was first received in my Office in July 2012 and at the time of writing, had not concluded. Consequently, I am not in a position to comment on the outcome of the review at this time. However, the events recorded here indicate how important it is for public bodies to ensure that they have effective structures, supports and resources in place to support the implementation of FOI. Indeed, the Code of Practice published by the Central Policy Unit is intended to assist public bodies in the achievement of that objective and I note that section 48(3) of the Act of 2014 requires FOI bodies to have regard to the Code of Practice in the performance of their functions under the Act.

Two further section 37 notices were issued to the IGB during 2014 in separate reviews involving the same requester.

Section 35

Where I consider that the reasons given by a public body in support of a decision are not adequate, section 35 empowers me to direct the head of a public body to issue a more comprehensive statement of its reasons for the decision.

In a review before my Office concerning NMH, I noted that it did not issue an initial decision on foot of a request received for certain records. Following the requester’s application for an internal review, a reply issued on 24 October 2013, which was taken to be an internal review decision. Section 14(5)(c) of the FOI Act provides that notification of a decision on internal review shall specify, if the decision is to refuse to grant the request wholly or in part,

  • the reasons for the refusal,
  • details of any provisions of the FOI Act pursuant to which the request is refused,
  • the findings on any material issues relevant to the decision, and
  • particulars of any matter relating to the public interest taken into consideration for the purposes of the decision.

My Office took the view that the reply that issued to the requester did not adequately address his request and did not comply with the stated requirements of an adequate internal review decision.

In the circumstances, my Office issued a formal section 35 notification directing NMH to furnish to the requester, and to my Office, a written statement of reasons why access to the records requested was being refused and of any findings on any material issues relevant to the decision. While I am disappointed that it was necessary to issue such a notification, it is even more disappointing that I was compelled to issue a section 37 notification in respect of the same case.

Key FOI statistics for the year

I wish to acknowledge the efforts made by all the lead agencies that collect statistics for inclusion in my Annual Report. The charts in this section of my Report can be viewed in association with the tables of statistics in Chapter 4 and other tables in previous Annual Reports, available on the Office website at www.oic.ie

Number of FOI requests to public bodies 2005-2014

Chart-2-Number-of-FOI-requests-to-public-bodies-2005-2014

The total number of requests received by public bodies in 2014 was 20,244, an increase of almost 7% over the figure for 2013. Accordingly, while the number of requests processed by public bodies during 2014 also increased by almost 6%, the number of requests on hand at the end of 2014 has risen to 4,214 (from 3,232 at the end of 2013). Indeed, the number of requests on hand at the end of 2014 represents an increase of almost 71% on the number on hand at the end of 2012. I would urge public bodies to carefully monitor their processing rates to ensure that adequate resources are provided to efficiently manage the volume of requests received on an ongoing basis.

Sectoral breakdown of FOI requests to public bodies

Chart-3-Sectoral-breakdown-of-FOI-requests-to-public-bodies

As in previous years, Government Departments/State Bodies and the Health Service Executive account for more than two thirds of all FOI requests received in the year. Similarly, in line with previous years, the HSE recorded the majority of requests received by a public body in the year.

There was a significant increase in the number of requests made to the Department of Justice and Equality in 2014 (920 in 2014 as against 550 in 2013). I am not aware of any specific factors that contributed to such a significant increase, although I note that the majority of the requests were for access to personal information - See table 6, Chapter 4.

Other notable increases in the number of requests received (albeit with relatively smaller numbers) include the Department of the Taoiseach (173 requests received in 2014 as against 91 in 2013), the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government (180 requests received in 2014 as against 98 in 2013) and the Defence Forces (224 requests received in 2014 as against 150 in 2013).

Top ten bodies who received most requests during 2014

Top ten bodies who received most requests during 2014

The HSE and hospitals account for eight of the top ten public bodies in receipt of FOI requests in 2014. There was a noticeable increase (55%) in the number of requests made to Tallaght Hospital in 2014 over 2013.

Type of requester to public bodies

Chart-4-Type-of-requester-to-public-bodies

Compared to the breakdown of requester types in 2013, the percentages have remained relatively static. However, there are small percentage increases in the proportion of journalists and others, with a slight decrease in the percentage of clients of public bodies.

Type of request to public bodies

Chart-5-Type-of-request-to-public-bodies

The percentages for the types of request as displayed in the above chart have remained broadly similar for the past four years. It will be interesting to note what effect, if any, the changes in the fees structure mentioned earlier will have on the number of requests made in 2015 for access to non-personal or mixed information.

Release rates by public bodies

Chart-6-Release-rates-by-public-bodies

A more detailed breakdown of release rates is contained at table 5, Chapter 4. The percentage number of requests that were refused has remained reasonably static over the past few years.

It is noteworthy that more than 80% of FOI requests are granted either in full or in part. Local Authorities show the highest percentage number of refusals, at 14%, the same percentage rate as 2013.

Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) caseload

Applications for review can be made to my Office by a requester who is not satisfied with a decision of the public body on an FOI request. Where a decision is made following a review by my Office, it is legally binding and can be appealed to the High Court only on a point of law.

Applications to OIC 2012-2014

Chart-7-Applications-to-OIC-2012-2014

Applications made to my Office in 2014 increased by 6% over the 2013 figure. The actual number of applications accepted for review is similar to 2013.

The difference between the number of applications received and accepted is mainly due to a number of applications being identified by my Office as invalid or premature (before the full FOI process had been concluded by the public body), or withdrawn by the applicant at an early stage prior to acceptance.

Subject matter of review applications accepted by OIC

Chart-8-Subject-matter-of-review-applications-accepted-by-OIC

As in previous years, the majority of applications accepted by my Office in 2014 concerned the refusal by public bodies to grant access (release of records) to some, or all, of the information requested.

Applications accepted by OIC by type 2012 – 2014

Chart-9-Applications-accepted-by-OIC-by-type-2012-–-2014

Outcome of reviews by OIC in 2014

Chart-10-Outcome-of-reviews-by-OIC-in-2014

In 2014, my Office reviewed decisions of public bodies in 340 cases. This represents an increase of 31% over the 2013 figure of 258.

Settlements and withdrawals

Applications that are settled, withdrawn or discontinued may follow discussions between the applicant, the public body and staff from my Office. Withdrawals often follow as a result of the intervention of my Office and a more detailed explanation of a decision being given to the applicant by the public body concerned. Settlements usually arise as a result of the public body releasing additional information during the course of a review. A number of cases were discontinued in the year by my Office as the applications were considered to be frivolous or vexatious. I comment further on cases of this nature in Chapter 2.

Age profile of cases closed by OIC

Chart-11-Age-profile-of-cases-closed-by-OIC

This table shows how long it took for a review to be completed by my Office. I am pleased that my Office was able to record a 7% increase in the number of cases closed within a four-month period over 2013.

Age profile of cases on hand in OIC at end 2014

Chart-12-Age-profile-of-cases-on-hand-in-OIC-at-end-2014

At the end of 2013, my Office had 72 cases on hand that were more than 1 year old. I am very pleased to record here that the number of such cases on hand at the end of 2014 had fallen to nine, a number of which remained open for reasons beyond the control of my Office. This was as a result of a specific initiative I introduced aimed at achieving an objective of having no cases over one year old on hand at the end of the year.

Breakdown by public body of applications for review accepted by OIC


Chart-13-Breakdown-by-public-body-of-applications-for-review-accepted-by-OIC

This chart diagram shows a breakdown by public body of cases that were accepted for review by my Office in 2014. The top three bodies in 2014 are the same as in 2013. Other bodies (less than five applications for review accepted) account for 43% of all applications accepted during the year. Further details on the HSE can be found in table 15, Chapter 4 and in the chart following this one.

Breakdown of HSE cases accepted by OIC

Chart-14-Breakdown-of-HSE-cases-accepted-by-OIC

Deemed refusals

The FOI Act imposes statutory time limits on public bodies for processing the various stages of an FOI request. Specifically, a decision on an original request should issue within four weeks and, in the event of an application for internal review, a decision following receipt of that application should issue within three weeks. A breach of these time limits, whether by means of no decision at the original request stage, or a late decision at internal review stage, results in the requester having the right to regard a decision as a ‘deemed refusal’ of access. Following a deemed refusal at internal review stage, a requester is entitled to apply for a review to my Office. The charts below show how many requests were deemed refused in the year at either stage or, indeed, at both.

Deemed refusals (at both stages) 2010 – 2014

Chart-15-Deemed-refusals-at-both-stages-2010-2014

Deemed refusals (at both stages) by body 2014

Chart-16-Deemed-refusals-by-body-2014

Public body – deemed refusal at 1st stage of FOI request

Chart-17-Deemed-refusals-at-1st-stage

Of the 252 applications accepted for review by my Office in 2014, 24% were deemed refused by the public body at the first stage of the applicant’s FOI request. Where a deemed refusal occurs at this first stage, the requester is entitled to write to the public body concerned and request an internal review.

Public body – deemed refusal at 2nd stage of FOI request

Chart-18-Deemed-refusals-at-2nd-stage

The figure for deemed refusals at the second stage is almost 28%. In a situation where a request for access to records is deemed refused at the second ‘internal review’ stage, the requester has a right to apply to my Office for review. In addition, in this situation, the requester is not obliged to pay a fee to my Office, where the request is for access to records that are non-personal or mixed.

General enquiries to OIC

Chart-19-General-enquiries-to-OIC

There was a slight increase in the number of general enquiries made to my Office in 2014, compared to 2013. The number of enquiries, at 1,274, is the highest number recorded in a year since 2007.

Fees received by OIC

During 2014, my Office received 104 applications for review where a fee was paid. The total amount received in application fees by my Office in 2014 was €11,865. A total of €7,350 was refunded to applicants for the following reasons:

  • €4,950, because the applications in question were either rejected as invalid, withdrawn or settled;
  • €1,550, because the public body had not issued an internal review decision within the time limit and was therefore of ‘deemed refusal’ status (section 41 of the FOI Act refers);
  • €850 was refunded to applicants because of situations where decisions were either annulled, discontinued, or where a fee was not due.

Statutory Certificates issued by Ministers and Secretaries General

The FOI (Amendment) Act 2003 introduced provisions whereby certain records could be removed from the scope of the FOI Act by means of certification by a Minister, or by a Secretary General of a Department. The relevant provisions, commented on below, are contained in sections 19, 20 and 25 of the FOI Act and provide that a report specifying the number of such certificates issued must be forwarded to my Office.

In the FOI Act 2014, the power for Secretaries General to protect records relating to the deliberative process of a public body was repealed.

Section 19

Section 19 is a mandatory exemption which provides protection for records relating to the Government or Cabinet. The definition of Government was amended by the 2003 Act to include a committee of officials appointed by the Government to report directly to it and certified as such by the written certification of the Secretary General to the Government. I have been informed by the Secretary General to the Government that no section 19 certificates were issued by him in 2014.

Section 20

Section 20 protects certain records relating to the deliberative process of a public body. In the case of a Department of State, the Secretary General may issue written certification to the effect that a particular record contains matter relating to the deliberative process of that Department. Where such a certificate is issued, the record specified cannot be released under the FOI Act. Any such certificate is revoked in due course by the issue of written certification by the Secretary General.

Having consulted with each Secretary General, my Office has been informed that no new section 20 certificates were issued during 2014.

Section 25

Where a Minister of the Government is satisfied that a record is an exempt record, either by virtue of section 23 (law enforcement and public safety), or section 24 (security, defence and international relations) and the record is of sufficient sensitivity or seriousness to justify doing so, that Minister may declare the record to be exempt from the application of the FOI Act by issuing a certificate under section 25(1) of the FOI Act.

Each year, Ministers must provide my Office with a report on the number of certificates issued and the provisions of section 23 or section 24 of the FOI Act that applied to the exempt record(s). I must append a copy of any such report to my Annual Report for the year in question.

My Office has been notified of the following certificates issued under Section 25.

Three section 25 certificates were renewed by the Minister for Justice and Equality in 2014 and they will fall for review in 2016. Another three certificates will fall for review in 2015. One certificate was issued by the Minister under the equivalent provision (section 34) of the FOI Act 2014. The new certificate will fall for review in 2016. A copy of the notification is attached at Appendix I to this Report.

Three certificates were issued under section 34 of the 2014 Act by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade in 2014. These certificates will fall for review in 2016. A copy of the notification is attached at Appendix I to this Report.

Staffing matters

As I mentioned earlier in my introduction, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform approved the recruitment by my Office of five additional staff members in anticipation of the expected additional demand for its services arising from the passing of the FOI Act 2014 and its extension to all public bodies. Sanction was also received to fill a number of vacancies at Investigator level.

I want to welcome each of the staff members who joined my Office in 2014. I also want to thank everyone for their support, drive and commitment to the work of the Office in 2014. I mentioned earlier how the year is noted for its successes. My staff and I are determined to build on that success and I anticipate that my Annual Report for 2015 will reflect another year of achievements and successes.

My thanks to Elizabeth Dolan and Stephen Rafferty, Senior Investigators for their drive, commitment and expertise throughout the year, and to Melanie Campbell and Edmund McDaid for their assistance in compiling this Report.

Irish Examiner – 07/11/2014

Irish Examiner – 07/11/2014



Irish Times – 20/10/2014

Irish Times – 20/10/2014



Irish Times – 17/10/2014

Irish Times – 17/10/2014