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Ms X and TUSLA - Child and Family Agency (FOI Act 2014)

Case Number: 160430

Whether the Agency was justified in its decision to refuse access in full and in part to the applicant's foster care file under section 37(1) of the FOI Act

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

Background

The Agency received a request from the applicant on 5 May 2016 for access to her file relating to her role as a foster carer. In its decision of 30 August 2016, the Agency granted access in full to a number of records and withheld access, in full and in part, to other records on the basis of section 37 of the FOI Act. Following a request for an internal review, the Agency affirmed the original decision on 20 September 2016. On 5 October 2016, this Office received an application for a review from the applicant.

I consider that this review should now be brought to a close by the issue of a formal, binding decision. The applicant and the Agency were each invited to make a submission to the Office but none was received from either party.

In conducting my review, I have had regard to correspondence between the applicant, the Agency and this Office. I have also had regard to the content of the records at issue and to the provisions of the FOI Act.

Scope of Review

This review is concerned with whether the Agency was justified in deciding to refuse access, in full and in part, to records on the basis of section 37(1) of the FOI Act. The Agency identified several hundred records, many of which were released in redacted form.

Preliminary Matters

Although I am obliged to give reasons for my decision, section 25(3) of the FOI Act requires me to take all reasonable precautions in the course of a review to prevent disclosure of information contained in an exempt record. This means that the extent to which I can describe the contents of the records is limited.

When a record is released under the FOI Act, it effectively amounts to disclosure to the world at large, as the Act places no restrictions on the type or extent of the subsequent use to which a record may be put.

Section 18(1) of the Act provides for the deletion of exempt information and the granting of access to a copy of a record with such exempt information removed. However, this should be done where it is practicable to do so and where the copy of the record thus created would not be misleading. The Commissioner takes the view that the provisions of section 18 do not envisage or require the extracting of particular sentences or occasional paragraphs from records for the purpose of granting access to those particular sentences or paragraphs. Generally speaking, therefore, the Commissioner is not in favour of the cutting or "dissecting" of records to such an extent.

Findings

Section 37 - Personal Information
Section 37(1) of the FOI Act provides for the refusal of a request where access to the record sought would involve the disclosure of personal information relating to an individual or individuals other than the requester. For the purposes of the Act, personal information is defined as information about an identifiable individual that (a) would, in the ordinary course of events, be known only to the individual or their family or friends or, (b) is held by a public body on the understanding that it would be treated by it as confidential. The FOI Act details fourteen specific categories of information that is personal, without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing definition, including "(xii) the name of the individual where it appears with other personal information relating to the individual or where disclosure of the name would, or would be likely to, establish that any personal information held by the public body concerned relates to the individual".

While I cannot discuss their content in any detail, I can state that the records contain information relating to the applicant's family and other individuals. Having reviewed the relevant records and redactions, I am satisfied that all of the withheld information is either personal information relating to individuals other than the applicant, or personal information relating to the applicant that is inextricably linked to the personal information of other individuals. Accordingly, I find that section 37(1) and/or 37(7) of the Act apply to the records.

Section 37(2) of the FOI Act sets out certain circumstances in which section 37(1) does not apply. I am satisfied that none of those circumstances arise in this case. That is to say, (a) the information contained in the records does not relate solely to the applicant; (b) the third parties have not consented to the release of that information; (c) the information is not of a kind that is available to the general public; (d) the information at issue does not belong to a class of information which would or might be made available to the general public; and (e) the disclosure of the information is not necessary to avoid a serious and imminent danger to the life or health of an individual.

Section 37(5) of the FOI Act provides that a request that would fall to be refused under section 37(1) may still be granted where, on balance:
(a) the public interest that the request should be granted outweighs the right to privacy of the individual to whom the information relates, or
(b) the grant of the information would be to the benefit of the person to whom the information relates.
I am satisfied that the release of the information at issue would not be to the benefit of the individuals concerned and that section 37(5)(b) does not apply.
Section 37(5)(a) - The Public Interest
In relation to paragraph (a), I must consider whether the public interest in granting the request outweighs, on balance, the public interest in protecting the right of privacy of the individuals to whom the information relates.

In considering the public interest test at section 37(5)(a), I have had regard to the judgment of the Supreme Court issued in July 2011 in the case of The Governors and Guardians of the Hospital for the Relief of Poor Lying-In Women v The Information Commissioner [2011] IESC 26 ("the Rotunda case") (available at www.oic.ie). In the judgment, the Supreme Court outlined the approach that the Commissioner should take when balancing the public interest in granting access to personal information with the public interest in upholding the right to privacy of the individual(s) to whom that information relates. Following the approach of the Supreme Court, 'a true public interest recognised by means of a well-known and established policy, adopted by the Oireachtas, or by law' must be distinguished from a private interest for the purpose of section 37(5)(a).
The FOI Act itself recognises the public interest in ensuring the openness and accountability of public bodies. On the other hand, however, the language of section 37 and the Long Title to the FOI Act recognise a very strong public interest in protecting the right to privacy, which has a Constitutional dimension, as one of the un-enumerated personal rights under the Constitution. Accordingly, when considering section 37(5)(a), privacy rights will be set aside only where the public interest served by granting the request (and breaching those rights) is sufficiently strong to outweigh the public interest in protecting privacy.

In my view, the information which the records contain is inherently private. I cannot identify a public interest which would override the Constitutional rights to privacy of the third parties to whom the records relate. I therefore find that section 37(5)(a) does not apply in the circumstances and that the withheld information in the records is exempt under section 37(1) of the FOI Act.

Having reviewed the relevant records, I am satisfied that all of the withheld information is either personal information relating to individuals other than the applicant, or personal information relating to the applicant that is inextricably linked to the personal information of other individuals. Accordingly, I find that sections 37(1) and 37(7) of the Act apply to the records.

Decision

Having carried out a review under section 22(2) of the Freedom of Information Act 2014, I hereby affirm the decision of the Agency to refuse access to the records in full and in part, on the basis of sections 37(1) and 37(7) of the FOI Act, since the withheld information concerns the personal information of third parties and other individuals which is inextricably linked to the personal information of the applicant.

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.


Elizabeth Dolan
Senior Investigator