Watchdog expresses concern over the number of FOI requests 'deemed refused'

More than 35,000 requests for information were received by public bodies in 2021.

THE INFORMATION COMMISSIONER has expressed concern over the high percentage of deemed refusals of Freedom of Information requests his office saw last year.

Public bodies have four weeks to make a decision on a request for information, unless they seek an extension from the person who made the request. Those making a request can seek an internal review if they do not receive any response within those four weeks.

In cases where no decision has been made by a public body by the initial decision-making deadline or at the internal review stage, this is called a ‘deemed refusal’. 

The Information Commissioner Ger Deering said 31% of reviews accepted by his office in 2021 were ‘deemed refusals’ compared with 32% in 2020, and 19% in 2019.

The number of Freedom of Information requests made to public bodies in 2021 increased by 13%, with a 17% increase in applications to the Information Commissioner to review decisions made by public bodies under the FOI Act.

In one case, the Houses of the Oireachtas Service refused to release the vast majority of records it held relating to compliance by members of the Oireachtas, and others in the complex, with Covid measures such as social distancing and hygiene protocols. 

Following an application for review of the decision, the Information Commissioner engaged with the Oireachtas Service resulting in the release of the majority of the records to the requester, with certain information redacted. 

The Commissioner found that the public interest in knowing the level of compliance with Covid measures had been addressed by release of the redacted records.

Speaking today at the publication of his Office’s annual report, Deering said that 35,673 FOI requests were made to all public bodies in 2021 – up from 31,591 in 2020. His Office received 687 applications to review decisions made by public bodies under the FOI Act, compared to 584 in 2020.

Despite the increase in demand for reviews to be conducted, the Information Commissioner’s Office completed 20% more cases (498) than it did in 2020 (414). It also dealt with cases more speedily, according to the report, with 62% of cases dealt with in four months, compared to 57% in 2020.

The highest number of requests (10,025) went to the HSE, followed by the Department of Social Protection (1,733), Tusla the Child and Family Agency (1,365), Tallaght University Hospital (994) and the Department of Justice (903). Each of these bodies saw an increase in FOI requests compared to 2020. 

More than half of requests were made by members of the public, while almost 20% came from journalists. 

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