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The Freedom of Information Act 1999

How to access info

The Freedom of Information Act, 1999, gives all members of the public the right of access to information about or in the possession of public authorities such as a government ministry, department or statutory body.

This article will deal with the process or procedure by which members of the public may access information and what can be done where a request for information is denied.

Your Right to Apply

Under Section 11 of the Act, every person has a right of access to an official document.

How to Apply

A request may be lodged at any office of the public authority (from whom you are requesting information) or be sent directly to the designated officer or head of that public authority.

It is done in writing by filling out a form which can be obtained from all public authorities or the Freedom of Information Unit located at Kent House, Maraval.

A request should state whether an applicant simply wishes to inspect the documents or wishes to have a copy supplied.

There are certain documents which cannot be obtained by this process. That is, where access to those documents:

• contain information which is open to public access, as part of a public register or otherwise, etc;

• contain information which is available for purchase by the public in accordance with arrangements made by a public authority;

• is available for public inspection in a registry maintained by the Registrar General or other public authority; or

• is stored for preservation or safe custody, being a document which is a duplicate of a document of a public authority.

Obligation of a Public Authority to Assist with Application

Request

Under the Act, a public authority cannot simply refuse a request on the ground that it fails to comply with the requirements of the Act; unless there has first been an attempt by that public authority to consult such an applicant with a view to ensuring that the request does indeed comply with the Act.

Notification of Approval

or Refusal of Request

A public authority is under an obligation by provisions of the Act to take reasonable steps to enable an applicant to be notified of the approval or refusal of his request as soon as practicable (not later than 30 days after the day on which the request has been made).

Approval of request

Where the request has been approved, the public authority is under an obligation to immediately give access of the document to the applicant. So that an applicant would then have the right to either:

• inspect the records;

• receive a photocopy or transcript; or

• view or hear the information depending on the request that was made.

Is a fee required?

Generally, no fee is required for the making of a request for access to an official document. However, where access to an official document is to be given in the form of printed copies, or copies in some other form, such as on tape, disk, film or other material, the applicant will be required to pay a prescribed fee.

Refusal of request

The Act gives a public authority the power to refuse a request without having processed the application or request, if the public authority is satisfied that:

(a) the request or application is made by, or on behalf of, a person who, on at least one previous occasion, has made a request or application to the public authority for access to the same documents;

(b) the request or application was refused and the High Court, on reviewing the decision to refuse the request or application, confirmed the decision; and

(c) there are no reasonable grounds for making the request or application again.

A public authority also has the power to refuse a request without the request having been processed where it is satisfied that the work involved in processing the request would substantially and unreasonably divert its resources from its other operations.

Of course, this is conditional on the ground that before refusing to provide information on these grounds the authority has taken reasonable steps to assist the applicant to reformulate the application so as to avoid causing such interference.

In any event where a request is refused so that an applicant is denied access to information, the applicant is entitled to a notice from the authority of the reasons for such refusal.

This notice should contain:

• the reasons for the decision;

• where the decision relates to a public authority, the name and designation of the person giving the decision.

Information about available remedies (dealt with under the next heading) should also be given.

Access to information may be denied where a request is made for access to an exempt document.

However while such a request will be refused: if it is practicable for the public authority to grant access to a copy of the document; with such deletions as to make the copy not an exempt document; and the applicant would wish to have access to such a copy, the public authority shall give the applicant access to such a copy of the document.

What remedies are available where a request has been

refused?

(1) Complaint to the Ombudsman:

A complaint in writing can be made to the Ombudsman within 21days of receiving notice of the refusal.

The Ombudsman, after examining the document if it exists, may make such recommendations with respect to the granting of access to the document as he thinks fit.

A public authority is required to consider the recommendations of the Ombudsman and, to such extent as it thinks fit, exercise its discretion in giving effect to the recommendations.

(2) Judicial Review:

A person aggrieved by a decision of a public authority to refuse a request may apply to the High Court for judicial review of that decision.

The application is usually heard and determined by a judge in Chambers, unless the court, with the consent of the parties, directs otherwise.

—Kavita Maharaj and Westmin JamesThis article sets out general guidelines. All legal rules have exceptions and variations. How the law applies to you depends on the facts of your case.

This column is an initiative of the Trinidad Guardian and the Law Association with assistance from students of the Hugh Wooding Law School.

©2005-2006 Trinidad Publishing Company Limited

Designed by: Randall Rajkumar-Maharaj · Updated daily by: Nicholas Attai