Mr Conn Corrigan of The Phoenix and the Department of Justice and Equality

JudgePeter Tyndall Information Commissioner
Judgment Date15 October 2015
Case OutcomeThe Commissioner varied the decision of the Department. He annulled its decision in relation to all but two of the records, which he found to be exempt under section 15 of the FOI Act as they are already in the public domain. He found that the Department had not justified its decision to refuse access to the remaining records on the basis of section 29(1) or section 37(1) of the FOI Act (except in relation to a small amount of personal information in one record).
CourtInformation Commission
Record Number150105
RespondentDepartment of Justice and Equality
Whether the refusal of access to records concerning representations made on the Legal Services Regulation Bill 2011 (the Bill) by the Department is justified under section 29(1) and section 37(1) of the FOI Act
Conducted in accordance with section 22(2) of the FOI Act by the Information Commissioner

On 13 February 2015 the applicant made an FOI request to the Department for certain records in relation to the Legal Services Regulation Bill 2011 (the Bill). In the course of correspondence, he narrowed the scope of the request to "letters/emails/communications/submissions etc sent to the Minister from 2014 - present from any interested party including, but not limited to, the Bar Council" (in respect of the Legal Services Bill).

By letter dated 11 March 2015, the Department refused access to the records on the basis that they were exempt from release under sections 29(1), 42(f) and 37(1) of the FOI Act. On 6 March 2015 the applicant applied for an internal review in respect of all of the records apart from those which were refused under section 42(f) of the FOI Act. By letter dated 2 April 2015, the Department issued its internal review decision, in which it affirmed its original decision, with an alteration in relation to a record already in the public domain. On 9 April 2015 the applicant applied to this Office for a review of the Department's decision.

In conducting this review I have had regard to the Department's decision on the matter; the Department's communications with the applicant and with this Office; the applicant's communications with the Department and with this Office; the views of the representative bodies and legal professionals who replied to this Office's invitation to make submissions; the content of the withheld records, provided to this Office by the Department for the purposes of this review; and to the provisions of the FOI Act. I use the term "representative bodies" to denote organisations which represent the interests of various sectors of the legal profession.

Scope of the Review

This review concerns the records which the applicant sought in his request for an internal review. The Department refused access to all of those records under section 29(1), with the exception of record 44, which it refused under section 37(1). Accordingly, the sole question for this review is whether the Department was justified in refusing access to those records under section 29(1) and section 37(1) of the FOI Act.

Preliminary Matters

I should explain that my jurisdiction under section 22 of the FOI Act is to make a new decision, in light of the facts and circumstances as they apply on the date of the review. This approach was endorsed by the High Court judgment of Mr Justice Ó Caoimh in the case of Minister for Education and Science v Information Commissioner[2001] IEHC 116. In The National Maternity Hospital and The Information Commissioner [2007] 3 IR 643, [2007] IEHC 113, the High Court (Quirke J) explained:

"The Commissioner was entitled to consider all of the material before her on the date on which she made her decision and to make her decision having regard to the circumstances which existed on [the date of her decision]".

It is important to note that section 22(12)(b) of the FOI Act provides that when the Commissioner reviews a decision to refuse a request, there is a presumption that the refusal is not justified unless the public body "shows to the satisfaction of the Commissioner that the decision was justified". Therefore in this case, the onus is on the Department to satisfy me that its decision is justified.

Analysis and Findings

As noted above, the Department refused all but one of the records within the scope of this review under section 29 of the FOI Act. However, it is clear from an examination of the records that not all of them relate to the Department's deliberative process. I have therefore found it helpful to categorise them in the table set out below.

1 Records already in the public domain 14 (statutory instruments), 36

Correspondence between
representative bodies and the Department

about consultation on the Bill

1, 4, 7, 8, 41, 43
3 Submissions to the Department about the Bill made by representative bodies, statutory bodies and members of the legal profession and judiciary 2, 3, 5, 6, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 (except for SIs), 15, 16, 17, 18,19, 20, 21, 22, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28,29, 30, 32, 33, 34 35, 37, 38, 39, 40, 42

Section 15(1)(d) - information in the public domain

Category 1

Having examined records 14 and 36, I note that record 14 consists in part of statutory instruments and record 26 consists of a press release. Both of these are already in the public domain. I therefore find that the statutory instruments in record 14 and all of record 26 are exempt under section 15(1)(d) of the FOI Act, on the basis that they are already in the public domain.

Section 29 - deliberative process

As noted above, the Department relied on section 29 to refuse access to all but two of the records. Its decision stated that the Bill is subject to a deliberative process.

Section 29(1) of the FOI Act provides:

"A head may refuse to grant an FOI request -

(a) if the record concerned contains matter relating to the deliberative processes of an FOI body (including opinions, advice, recommendations, and the results of consultations, considered by the body, the head of the body, or a member of the body or of the staff of the body for the purpose of those processes), and

(b) the granting of the request would, in the opinion of the head, be contrary to the public interest,

and, without prejudice to the generality of paragraph (b), the head shall, in determining whether to grant or refuse to grant the request, consider whether the grant thereof would be contrary to the public interest by reason of the fact that the requester concerned would thereby become aware of a significant decision that the body proposes to make".

The public interest test contained in this provision differs from the public interest test found in other exemptions under the FOI Act. In order to avail of the section 29 exemption, the public body must be of the opinion that releasing the records would be against the public interest. Other exemptions require the public body to be of the opinion that the public interest would be better served by release. In my view, the section 29 exemption tends more strongly towards release of the records. This means that public bodies have a higher hurdle to overcome in demonstrating that it applies.

A deliberative process may be described as a process which involves the consideration of various matters with a view to making a decision on a particular issue. The exemption has two requirements:

(a) the record must contain matter relating to the deliberative process; and

(b) disclosure must be contrary to the public interest.

These are two independent requirements and the fact that the first is met carries no presumption that the second is also met. It is therefore important for public bodies to show to the satisfaction of the Commissioner that both requirements have been met. Public bodies should not proceed on the basis that all records relating to deliberations are automatically exempt under section 29 of the FOI Act,...

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