Case number: OIC-142988-M9B6Z7

Whether the Council was justified in its decision to extend the period for consideration of the applicant’s FOI request under section 14 of the FOI Act

 

27 November 2023

 

Background

The applicant is a registered medical practitioner. I understand that a third party made a complaint about the applicant and he subsequently made a number of FOI requests to the Medical Council regarding the complaint and related matters. On 12 September 2023, the applicant wrote to the Medical Council requesting correspondence between the Medical Council and a named third party regarding the complaint.

On 10 October 2023, the Medical Council wrote to the applicant to say it was extending the period for consideration of his request, under section 14 of the FOI Act, from the original deadline date of 11 October 2023 to no later than 8 November 2023. It explained that the reason for the extension was that the Information Governance team is “currently dealing with a number of requests for information which is limiting the resources available to complete [his] request within the original deadline”. The Medical Council also explained that it was in the process of the gathering the records relevant to his case but it was taking longer than anticipated. It also said that it expected to issue the records much sooner than the extension deadline.

On 10 October 2023, the applicant sought a review by this Office of the Council’s decision to extend the decision making period. I understand the Council subsequently issued its decision to the applicant on 17 October 2023. The substantive decision is not the subject of this review. I note therefore, that this decision can have no tangible benefit for either party. During a phone call with this Office’s Investigating Officer, the applicant indicated his wish to proceed with this review.

I have now completed my review in accordance with section 22(2) of the FOI Act. In carrying out my review, I have had regard to the correspondence outlined above and to the submissions of both parties on the matter. I have decided to conclude this review by way of a formal, binding decision.

Scope of Review

This review is concerned solely with whether the Council’s decision to extend the time frame for considering the applicant’s request was in accordance with the provisions of section 14 of the FOI Act.          

Analysis and Findings

Section 13(1) of the Act provides that an FOI body shall make a decision on a request for records within four weeks of receipt of the request. However, under section 14(1), it may extend that four-week period by up to four further weeks where it considers that

“(a) the request relates to such number of records, or

(b) the number of other FOI requests relating either to the record or records to which the specified request relates or to information corresponding to that to which the specified request relates or to both that have been made to the body concerned before the specified request was made to it and in relation to which a decision under section 13 has not been made is such,

that compliance with that subsection [section 13(1)] within the four weeks specified is not reasonably possible.”

The Medical Council did not specify whether it was relying on section 14(1)(a) or 14(1)(b) in the extension letter it sent to the applicant. However, in its submissions to this Office it indicated that was solely relying on section 14(1)(b).

In those submissions, the Medical Council said that in the ten working days preceding the original deadline date of 11 October 2023, the original Decision Maker for this request was absent on Annual Leave. The Council said that because its then FOI Officer was working on other cases, the Head of Information Governance stepped in as the Decision Maker. The Council said that the applicant’s request related to records held by an external legal firm who acted for the Medical Council’s CEO in ongoing legal matters. It explained that multiple discussions where necessary as a number of issues had to be considered. The Medical Council said that it issued a decision to applicant four days after the original deadline in the case. This was after the Medical Council was contacted by this Office outlining the receipt of the applicant’s appeal. 

The Medical Council submitted that due to staff resourcing issues in the days preceding the original deadline for the release of these records, some delay occurred in order for the Decision Maker to engage with the legal firm and discuss the release of documents. The Medical Council said it was this engagement that, regrettably, delayed the release of the records to the applicant by four working days.

The Medical Council explained it released a handful of records to the applicant. In response to a query from the Investigating Officer, the Medical Council explained that three of its staff have had some input in responding to the applicant’s request and two staff at the external legal firm. It said it was difficult to estimate the amount of time spent on this request as the FOI Officer and original Decision Maker no longer work at the Medical Council so without speaking with them it is difficult to quantify. The Council outlined that it is experiencing some staff resourcing issues in the Information Governance team at present, the team responsible for managing FOI requests and requests received under the GDPR.

It is my understanding that the applicant’s previous two FOI requests were completed at the time of this FOI request. It is clear that the Medical Council erred in the application of the section 14 extension of time. It is not open to an FOI body to rely on section 14(1)(b) where it is experiencing staffing resourcing issues. Section 14(1)(b) may only be applied in circumstances in where there are a number of other FOI requests regarding the records to which the FOI request relates. This was not the case in this matter. The applicant had no other FOI requests on hand with the Medical Council and nor were there any other related FOI requests by other FOI requesters relating to the same content. Considering this, I find that the Medical Council was not justified in applying section 14(b) to extend the period for decision making in the applicant’s FOI request.

Decision

Having carried out a review under section 22(2) of the FOI Act, I hereby annul the Council’s decision to extend the period for consideration of the applicant’s FOI request under section 14 of the Act.

Right of Appeal

Section 24 of the FOI Act sets out detailed provisions for an appeal to the High Court by a party to a review, or any other person affected by the decision. In summary, such an appeal, normally on a point of law, must be initiated not later than four weeks after notice of the decision was given to the person bringing the appeal.

 

Richard Crowley
Investigator