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Freedom of Information Office

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can people ask for any information at all?
  • What is a record?
  • Is my diary a record?
  • Is e-mail a record? What about deleted e-mail?
  • What about draft records?
  • What about copyright records?
  • Are electronic copies of documents covered by the Act?
  • Does FOI mean we have to keep all our records forever?
  • How does FOI affect schemes where we charge a fee to see records?
  • Who will make the decisions to release or not?
  • What will I have to do with an FOI request?
  • How do you recognise an FOI request?
  • Can I make an FOI request?
  • Can I see my personnel records?
  • Do people get everything they ask for?
  • What form do they get access in?
  • How much does it cost?
  • Do we have to action FOI requests immediately?
  • How much time do we have to work on a request?
  • What happens if we go over the time limit?
  • What if something libellous has to be released?
  • Can incorrect personal information be deleted from a file?
  • Can anyone ask for reasons for decisions?
  • What if no reasons are recorded on file?
  • Is the right of access retrospective?
  • Is the right to reasons retrospective?
  • How does FOI affect the Data Protection Act?
  • What about contractors who do work for us? Are they covered by FOI?
  • What can people do if they are not happy with our decision?
  • Is the Information Commissioner's decision final?
  • Does FOI mean that other people can see information about me?
  • As a staff member, I seem to have less privacy than other people do. Is this true?
  • Can people see information about other people or businesses?
  • If these third parties refuse to agree to release, what happens?
  • Are their records released before the appeal?
  • What about parents seeing children's records?
  • If there is information about several people on a file (eg: family members), who gets access and to how much information?
  • The Act I work under has a secrecy provision. Does it override FOI?
  • What if something is sub judice (in the court)?
  • Can you find out who made an allegation about you?
  • What does Public Interest mean?

  • Can people ask for any information at all?

    A: A person can make a request for any record held by a public body covered by the FOI Act. This does not mean they are going to get everything they ask for. There are exemptions and categories of information that are not subject to the Act. Apart from reasons for decisions, a person cannot ask for information that has not been recorded in any form.

    What is a record?

    A: A record is defined as including any memorandum, book, plan, map, drawing, diagram, pictorial or graphic work or other documents, any photograph, film or recording, or any form in which data are held.

    Is my diary a record?

    A: Any paper or electronic diary which is used in part or in whole for recording work-related information is a record for the purposes of the Act.

    Is e-mail a record? What about deleted e-mail?

    A: E-mail is a record for the purposes of the Act. Provided it is not stored in a back-up system, deleted e-mail may be considered as no longer in the possession of the public body.

    What about draft records?

    A: Drafts of any document, whether in paper or electronic form, are records under the Act. The question of whether or not part or all of the record may be exempt will depend on the content of the record and the consequences of its release.

    What about copyright records?

    A: The first question is whether or not they contain any exempt matter (eg: trade secrets or commercially valuable information). If they can be released, they can only be viewed rather than copied.

    Are electronic copies of documents covered by the Act?

    A: Yes, the definition of record includes any form in which data are held and information in machine readable form.

    Does FOI mean we have to keep all our records forever?

    A: The FOI Act says nothing about how long to keep records, it simply sets out the rules of accessing records that exist.

    How does FOI affect schemes where we charge a fee to see records?

    A: Under FOI, records that are available under an existing scheme, free or for a fee, are excluded from the FOI Act. Therefore those schemes continue unchanged, and people cannot use FOI as an alternative means of accessing that information.

    Who will make the decisions to release or not?

    A: Each public body has staff who are trained and are authorised to make decisions and review decisions under the FOI Act.

    What will I have to do with an FOI request?

    A: This will depend on your duties, however it is likely that you may be required to search for records in your work area that have been requested. Your opinion as to any possible harm from releasing the records may also be sought. You may be required to assist members of the public to make an FOI request.

    How do you recognise an FOI request?

    A: A request under the FOI Act must be in writing and must state that it is made under the FOI Act. It also has to contain enough information for the record to be identified. Some organisations accept FOI requests on e-mail.

    Can I make an FOI request?

    A: Yes, anyone can make an FOI request.

    Can I see my personnel records?

    A: Your agency may already have a scheme under which you can see your personnel records without having to lodge an FOI request. If not, you can request your personnel records created after 21 April 1995 under the FOI Act, and perhaps earlier records in certain circumstances.

    Do people get everything they ask for?

    A: This depends on what they are asking for. Some requesters may get everything they ask for, however others will not get all or part of what they have requested. Approximately 60% of all requests in 1999 were granted in part or in full, with only 18% refused in full.

    What form do they get access in?

    A: The requester generally has access in their preferred form: viewing the original, obtaining copies (paper or diskette), or hearing/viewing audiovisual records.

    How much does it cost?

    A: There is no application fee. The main charges are an hourly charge (£16.50) for search and retrieval of records, and a copying charge of 3p per A4 page. The charge for searching is not made for requests for personal records, except where a significant number of records is involved. Copying charges may be waived if the requester is in financial difficulties.

    Do we have to action FOI requests immediately?

    A: All aspects of FOI processing are subject to time limits specified in the Act, so everyone involved in processing must do so as quickly as possible.

    How much time do we have to work on a request?

    A: A request has to be acknowledged within two weeks, and responded to within four weeks, in general. If there is a need to consult third parties, the period is extended by three weeks. For requests involving a particularly large numbers of records, an additional four weeks may also be available. Requests for review must be decided within three weeks.

    What happens if we go over the time limit?

    A: The request is deemed to have been refused, or the original decision affirmed (if a review). This decision is then reviewable.

    What if something libellous has to be released?

    A: Decision-makers are protected under the Act from various legal consequences of releasing records. This protection includes protection against an action for libel.

    Can incorrect personal information be deleted from a file?

    A: Incorrect personal information may be altered, or deleted from a file under the Act. However care must be taken not to delete information which formed the basis of a decision in a case, where removing the information may expose the public body to some risk.

    Can anyone ask for reasons for decisions?

    A: A person who is materially affected by a decision may request reasons for that decision.

    What if no reasons are recorded on file?

    A: The head of the public body is responsible for compiling a statement of reasons within the 4 weeks specified in the Act, even if nothing is recorded on the file.

    Is the right of access retrospective?

    A: For personal records of the public and of ex-members of staff, the right of access is completely retrospective. For current members of staff, it relates to records created after 21 April 1995. For non-personal records, the right of access is to records created after 21 April 1998.

    Is the right to reasons retrospective?

    A: The right to obtain reasons commences from the date which the Act applies to your public body. Reasons may be sought for any decision made on or after that date .

    How does FOI affect the Data Protection Act?

    A: Rights under the Data Protection Act continue unchanged by FOI. The fact that they are also available under Data Protection does not exclude them from access under FOI.Where a conflict arises under the Data Protection Act and the FOI Act, legal advise is that the FOI Act holds precedence.

    What about contractors who do work for us? Are they covered by FOI?

    A: The records generated by contractors in the course of performing their services under contract are covered by FOI and must be provided to the agency to make a decision on access to them.

    What can people do if they are not happy with our decision?

    A: Firstly they can ask for a review of the decision by a more senior officer of the agency (internal review). If they are still not happy , they can ask for a review by the Information Commissioner, an independent body (external review).

    Is the Information Commissioner's decision final?

    A: In most cases the Commissioner's decision will be final. However there is a right of appeal to the High Court on a point of law. There have only been a few such appeals to date.

    Does FOI mean that other people can see information about me?

    A: It is possible that one person's personal information may be released to another person without their consent ( although they may well have a right of appeal). The Act provides for release in two circumstances : when release would benefit the person whose information it is; and where there is a greater public interest in release than in the privacy rights of the person.

    As a staff member, I seem to have less privacy than other people do. Is this true?

    A: Certain information about members of staff is not defined as "personal information" and it therefore cannot be exempted under the Act. However this information simply concerns your position, the terms and conditions of employment, and matters recorded while doing your job. These are not matters concerning your private life, but rather your public role.

    Can people see information about other people or businesses?

    A: It is possible if there is found to be a greater public interest in releasing than protecting the information . However the person or business must be consulted to obtain their views and allow them an opportunity of seeking a review of the decision.

    If these third parties refuse to agree to release, what happens?

    A: They are able to seek external review of the decision and can put their case directly to the Information Commissioner, thereby bypassing internal appeal.

    Are their records released before the appeal?

    A: None of the disputed information is released to the FOI requester before the review process is exhausted.

    What about parents seeing children's records?

    A: Regulations and guidelines have been issued which set out in detail the issues which should be considered before release of the records of a minor to their parents.

    Can anyone see the records of a deceased person?

    A: Regulations and guidelines have been issued which set out in detail the issues which should be considered before release of the records of a deceased person. The decision maker has to consider issues such as the relationship of the requester to the deceased (eg; executor of the estate), and their need for the information for the adminstration of the estate.

    If there is information about several people on a file (eg: family members), who gets access and to how much information?

    A: This is a complex situation, where issues both of personal privacy and confidentiality arise. The decision maker has to consider the provisions of section 28, such as whether release could benefit one or more of the family members, and also the public interest in release. Family members are likely to be consulted for their views and to be given the right of review if they are not satisfied with the decision.

    The Act I work under has a secrecy provision. Does it override FOI?

    A: Secrecy provisions in other legislation, which prohibit release of certain information, are overridden by FOI if they are specified in the Third Schedule of the Act. If they are not listed in the Third Schedule, their prohibition is preserved in Section 32, and the information is not disclosed. A Committee of the Houses of the Oireachtas is currently examining the secrecy provisions in legislation with a view to having these provisions added to the Third Schedule of the FOI Act.

    What if something is sub judice (in the court)?

    A: There is no exemption which precisely covers matters before the courts, however there are provisions which protect records subject to legal privilege, and to those which may prejudice the fairness of court or tribunal proceedings.

    Can you find out who made an allegation about you?

    A:The Act protects the identity of a confidential source of information in relation to the law if it satisfies the conditions set out in Section 26 of the Act. In general you should be able to find out the substance of an allegation made against you under FOI.

    What does Public Interest mean?

    A: This is a complex concept, however at its heart it means standards of conduct by individuals or Government for the good of society and well being of its members.the public good, or benefit of the public. It does not mean a matter in which the media or the public is interested or curious. Examples of public interst factors would include openness and transparency of the business of public bodies, protecting the privacy of individuals and shedding light on the activities of Government and public bodies.