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Mr. X and Department of Justice and Equality (FOI Act 2014)

Case Number: 160342

Whether the Department was justified in refusing to grant access to further information relating to the applicant on the basis that no other relevant records can be found after all reasonable steps to ascertain their whereabouts have been taken

Conducted in accordance with section 22(2) of the FOI Act by Stephen Rafferty, Senior Investigator, who is authorised by the Information Commissioner to conduct this review

Background

By letter dated 13 May 2015, the applicant submitted a request to the Department for all records relating to him personally, including relating to what he described as his cases involving a number of specified public bodies and a US university. On 15 June 2015 and 7 July 2015, the Department wrote to the applicant seeking proof of identity, as well as a list of reference numbers and details of the applicant's previous addresses so as to facilitate its searches. An exchange of correspondence followed in relation to the applicant's request for an extension of the time-frame for replying to the Department's request.

Subsequently, on 20 January 2016, the applicant provided proof of his identity, as well as a detailed 57 page submission. The Department issued its decision on 18 February 2016, in which it stated that it was granting access to 22 records it located. While a schedule of the records located was provided, the Department asked the applicant to inform it of the address to which the records should be posted. On 8 March 2016, the applicant sought an internal review of the Department's decision, and stated that he sought, in particular, court records. The Department issued its internal review decision on 18 March 2016, in which it affirmed the original decision, stating that it does not hold court records and providing details to the applicant of the relevant provisions and procedures for accessing such records. The applicant sought a review by this Office of the Department's decision by way of letter dated 22 August 2016.

Having received submissions from both the Department and the applicant, I am satisfied that it is now appropriate to bring this review to a conclusion by way of formal, binding decision. In conducting this review I have had regard to the Department's communications with the applicant as set out above and to the communications between this Office, the Department, and the applicant on the matter.

 

Scope of Review

This review is concerned solely with the question of whether the Department was justified in its decision to refuse the applicant's request for further records on the ground that no records containing the information sought exist or can be found. Records held by the Courts Service or other public bodies referred to by the applicant are outside the scope of this review.

Preliminary Matter

The applicant, in his submissions to the Department and this Office, raised in detail various matters going far beyond his request for access to records. In particular, he referred to a "scheme of redress" as being his main concern, setting out a number of actions he believes should be taken by the Department, including the payment of compensation both to himself and to his brother, the issuing of formal apologies to him from an Irish university, an American university and the Irish state generally, prosecutions, and the removal from office of senior members of the government, judiciary and other state bodies.

This Office has no role in relation to the broader matters raised by the applicant. The nature and extent of the role of this Office is set out in the FOI Act and in this case relates only to the applicant's request for records. It appears that at certain points of his submissions the applicant contends that further records should exist. I am satisfied, having examined the applicant's various submissions, that the question of whether further records can be found relating to his request is the only matter raised by the applicant in his submissions which this Office is competent to address.

Analysis and Findings

Section 15(1)(a) of the FOI Act provides that a request for access to a record may be refused if the record does not exist or cannot be found after all reasonable steps to ascertain its whereabouts have been taken. The Commissioner's role in cases such as this 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 also must assess the adequacy of the searches conducted by the FOI body in looking for relevant records.

The evidence in "search" cases consists of the steps actually taken to search for records, along with miscellaneous other evidence about the record management practices of the FOI body, on the basis of which the FOI body concluded that the steps taken to search for records were reasonable. On the basis of the information provided, the Commissioner forms a view as to whether the decision maker was justified in coming to the decision that the records sought do not exist or cannot be found. It is not normally the Commissioner's function to search for records that a requester believes are in existence.

The Department, in its submission, stated that it searched its correspondence tracking system with the applicant's details and found that its Courts Policy Division held records relating to him. That Division conducted further searches, and the located records were scheduled and copied.

The Department made a number of attempts to provide these records to the applicant, by seeking that he provide a postal address, or in the alternative to attend at their offices to collect them. The applicant was not willing to provide a postal address, nor was he in a position to attend at the Department's premises. In the course of this review, the Department scanned the records and provided them by email to the applicant. However, the applicant refused to accept records by this means, stating that he had deleted the email without reading it. When this Office provided him with a further copy of the records by email, the applicant stated that he was "not looking at" same, but was interested only in the "scheme of redress". It is noteworthy that all of the records located comprised correspondence sent to the Department either by the applicant or by a public representative on his behalf, and the Department's acknowledgements of, and responses to, that correspondence.

Having carefully considered the matter, I am satisfied that the Department has taken all reasonable steps to locate relevant records. I therefore find that the Department was justified in refusing access to further records under section 15(1)(a) of the FOI Act on the ground that no further records exist or can be found.

Decision

Having carried out a review under section 22(2) of the Freedom of Information Act 2014, I hereby affirm the Department's decision to refuse access to further records.

Right of Appeal

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.

 

Stephen Rafferty
Senior Investigator