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COURT CASES CRIPPLING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION
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NAMA and other complex legal cases requiring outside expertise are draining the resources of the Office of the Information Commissioner [OIC] and the Commissioner for Environmental Information [CEI].

 

In a letter to Brendan Howlan, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, FIE has pointed out that the OIC was already 'stretched beyond its limit' according to the 2012 Annual Report released last May. More than 56% of the cases were not resolved within one year, and 22% have been on hand for more than two years.

 

The fact that only 18% of the cases dealt with under FoI were decided within the legal timeframe was deemed 'unacceptable' by Emily O'Reilly, then Commissioner, in the 2012 Annual Report.

 

However, the resource situation has worsened considerably, with eight separate litigations now ongoing against the office, four of which have been taken in the last year.

 

The challenge by the State to the High Court's confirmation of the Office's ruling that NAMA was a public body for the purposes of the legislation has now been given Supreme Court's 'expedited listing' and will be heard shortly. A similar appeal on Anglo Irish Bank's status is also pending. Bord na Mona yesterday withdrew a similar judicial review, further wasting scare resources.

 

According to the OIC, no specific funds have been provided by the Minister to cover the substantial outlay required for legal costs, draining staff and  non-staff resources, in spite of repeated requests.

 

Although the CEI is a legally independent office under Access to the Environment legislation [AIE], the 2012 Annual Report says that it 'has not received any funding allocation from the State and must rely entirely on the resources that can be made available from the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC)'.

 

While 5 additional staff have recently been approved, these are specifically to cover the additional work generated by the new Ombudsman Act and the changes proposed to the proposed expansion to the Freedom of Information Act. The number of bodies covered in 1997 was 40 public bodies. However, the number of bodies involved in 2011, when the last returns were made, was 188 and this is due to rise again under the revisions to the FoI Act before the Dail which includes all public bodies not specifically exempted.

 

The First Aarhus Implementation Report to the United Nations under the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, released by the Government this week, dismisses concerns over funding shortfalls. It states that the Ombudsman's Office allocates funding for the Information Commissioner and that it is 'open to that Office to apply to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform for further funding if required.'

 

'The office is chasing its tail in attempts to address the very serious backlog of cases before it. To participate in public debates the public must be given access to the same information the Government holds at the time of the debate. As we know to our cost, it is little good to provide information years after decisions have been made,' FIE Director Tony Lowes wrote to Minister Howlan.

 

Emily O'Reilly highlighted 'one particular truth about FoI' last February in an address to a University of Limerick Conference on the impact of 15 years of the FoI Act on Ireland: Governments 'treat the information in their possession as a resource, to be doled out in amounts as they see fit, either copious flows or mean little trickles. I noted that ultimately, it is the Government that controls the tap.'

 

Verification/ Contact: Tony Lowes 353 (0)27 74771 / 353 (0)87 2176316

 

Letter to the Minister

 

http://www.friendsoftheirishenvironment.net/cmsfiles/Library/Brendan-Howlin-9.01.14.pdf


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New Years Resolution: To Keep Our Subscribers Better Informed

For small voluntary organisations it is always a trade off between doing the work and talking about the work. During the last year the heavy workload, particularly in dealing with commercial peat extraction and aquaculture - as well as wind farms on unsuitable sites - has meant that we have been more silent than we would have wished. Our New Year's Resolution is to redress that balance. But don't forget to check in with our website and subscribe to our Facebook page and our twitter Papers Today feed - that way you won't miss anything. Sadly, we can't rely on the media to cover environmental news anymore.

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