The Freedom of Information (FOI) process is a critical part of democracy that allows citizens to scrutinise the actions of public bodies and hold them to account.
Image Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur/ We Animals
Why make a Freedom of Information request?
The FOI process is a way to obtain information that is not publicly available. For example, we have made FOI requests to obtain inspections of Dog Breeding Establishments undertaken by the local council vets.
It may be that a FOI is not necessary initially, as the information may already be available. Public bodies are required to adopt publication schemes. Publication schemes require public bodies to prepare and publish as much information as possible on a routine basis. So the first port of call, if you can't find the information you are looking for, is to see whether it should be available under the publication scheme.
If you are concerned about how a public body is conducting themselves, it may be more appropriate in the first instance to write to the public body setting out your concerns. The success of such an approach will depend on the public body involved and the issues you are raising. When writing to public bodies about issues relating to animals, our experience has generally been that such letters are either ignored or met with blanket denials. So this is where the FOI comes in handy. It is a tool to compel a public body to release information that they may not otherwise voluntarily hand over.
2. What information can I ask for?
Section 11 of the Freedom of Information Act 2014 (FOIA) allows you the right to request any record held by a FOI body. But, for reasons that I will come to later, it helps to be specific in your requests if you can.
Requests relating to the Environment are dealt with in pretty much the same way - just under a different piece of legislation. A FOI body should help you with this.
Public bodies can refuse requests for information if the record you are seeking is exempt (see section 28-41). We will write further on the issue of appeals and exempt records in the context of animal issues in our future blog posts.
3. Who can I ask for information
You can ask a FOI body or a "prescribed body" for information. A FOI body is generally a public body - so government departments, local authorities, institutions such as universities and public hospitals etc. Section 6 of the FOIA sets this out in full.
Prescribed bodes (section 7) are those that the minister has decided should be subject to the FOI regime for any number of reasons but usually because they carry out an important function and receive a lot of public funding - so the Central Bank of Ireland, EirGrid, ESB networks etc. The full list is at Schedule 1 of the FOIA.
4. How do I ask for this information?
FOI requests don't need to be made in any particular form, but the FOIA does require certain information to be included. You don't need to explain why you are seeking the information. We would suggest something along the following lines:
"Dear FOI Officer,
I am writing to request information pursuant to section 12 of the Freedom of Information Act.
I am seeking the following records: [list what you want]
I would like to obtain copies of these records OR I would like access to these records (choose which applies)
Some places make it easy to find the email address of their FOI officer; others don't. If you're struggling, simply send the email to the general contact address and they should pass it on.
5. Do I have to pay for the service?
Initially, no. However, if you request information that might take a long time to find or compile, then you may be charged a fee. If you are in receipt of benefits, then you may be exempt from these charges.
The charges are one of the reasons why it helps to be very clear in your request and narrow the request down to what you really need. That said, it's not always possible. If you are told that there will be charges, ask for a breakdown. On more than one occasion, we've had a local authority initially wanting to charge us an extortionate amount of money. The fees were clearly being used as a way to put us off pursuing the request. When the authorities were forced to justify their charges, in almost all instances the costs suddenly halved. DON'T BE AFRAID TO CHALLENGE THEM.
6. When should I receive a reply?
Your request should be acknowledged within 2 weeks. You should have a response within 4 weeks. If you don't get a response, it is considered a deemed refusal. You will then have to seek an internal review of the decision.
7. What if my request is refused?
Public bodies can refuse information if they believe the records fall within one of the exemptions (s28-41), and where necessary they have satisfied a pubic interest test to show that on balance it is in the public interest not to release the information.
You may want to consider appealing the decision to the Information Commissioner (section 22 of the FOIA). This how-to won't deal with refusals and appeals, but we will write about this soon.
If you do have questions, or if your request has been refused and you just want a chat about it, please get in touch. We might have experienced the same thing and might be able to point you to some resources that could help. Or you might have just stumbled onto something BIG, you Erin Brockovich you.