17 June 2020
In 2019 Information Commissioner, Peter Tyndall, received the highest number of applications for review of Freedom of Information (FOI) decisions in ten years. The Commissioner’s Office has seen an increase of 89% in applications for review of decisions by public bodies under the FOI Act since 2009. Almost 40,000 FOI requests were made to all public bodies in 2019 - an increase of 179% over the last ten years.
39% of all FOI requests were made to government departments or state bodies, while the HSE received 29% of all requests. 51% of FOI requests were made by clients of public bodies while 23% came from journalists.
The figures were published as part of the Information Commissioner’s Annual Report for 2019.
The Information Commissioner said:
“After five years’ experience of operating the 2014 FOI Act it is clear to me that there is considerable room for improvement. I have made a number of recommendations aimed at improving the Act for everyone, including users and public bodies”.
The recommendations include:
In his Annual Report the Information Commissioner also highlights the difficulties that a decision of the Court of Appeal, in relation to the obligation on public bodies to justify their refusal of FOI requests, raises for the Commissioner’s Office and public bodies.
The Commissioner said:
“The decision has the potential to have a profound effect on the way my Office processes reviews and, indeed, on the way the FOI regime operates in Ireland. With respect to the court’s decision I felt compelled to appeal the judgment to the Supreme Court and we await the decision of the Court.”
The Commissioner also commented on the marked increase in the level of resources his Office has had to devote to dealing with frivolous or vexatious requests and applications for review.
The Commissioner said:
“It is a source of immense frustration for all those charged with operating the FOI regime that such individuals appear to have no regard for the significant administrative burden that this creates.”
In his annual report the Commissioner welcomes the reduction in the number of deemed refusals by public bodies (cases where public bodies do not make a decision on an FOI request in time), and improved cooperation by public bodies during his reviews of decisions.
The Information Commissioner’s Annual Report for 2019 is available at www.oic.ie
The Information Commissioner’s Annual Report summarises a number of key decisions issued by his Office during 2019 including:
In one case the Department of Education and Skills refused access to reports of fire safety assessments conducted on schools built by a particular construction company. The Department refused to release the records on a number of grounds, including that release would harm its deliberations on legal proceedings, the issue was sub judice and the records were commercially sensitive.
The Information Commissioner noted that the fact that there were fire safety concerns in relation to certain schools and that the Department had initiated court proceedings against the construction company was in the public domain. The Commissioner found that the public interest would be better served by release of the records. The Minister for Education and Skills has appealed the Commissioner’s decision to the High Court.
Wicklow County Council refused to release a copy of its agreement with the developer of the Florentine Shopping Centre in Bray. The Council said that the agreement was commercially sensitive and there was a duty of confidence between it and the developer. The Commissioner rejected the Council’s argument and said that in the context of the existence of the FOI Act, there could not have been a mutual expectation of confidentiality in relation to the public tendering of public land.
Peter Tyndall is also the Commissioner for Environmental Information. The role of the Commissioner is to decide on appeals by members of the public who are not happy with the outcome of their requests to public authorities for environmental information under the Access to Information on the Environment Regulations.
The Office of the Commissioner for Environmental Information received the highest number of appeals of decisions by public authorities since the Office was established in 2007. 64 appeals were made to the Commissioner. The Office also saw the highest number of its decisions appealed to the courts in the history of the Office.
Among the cases dealt with in 2019 were:
The Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht refused access to records relating to the impact on wildlife of the Heritage Bill (which provides for the reduction of the closed period for the cutting and burning of vegetation). The Commissioner decided that factual and other information in parts of a Memorandum of a Government meeting and a Government decision should be released.
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