Strictly for the Record: Scope of FOI Exceptions contrasts with Access Rights under the GDPR
Last week the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform announced a full public consultation of the Freedom of Information Act 2014 (the “FOI Act”), which will inform the direction of travel for FOI policy into the future. Having carried out a survey that closed in December 2021, the Department has prepared a consultation paper that seeks responses from the public on themes grouped into two areas: structural issues and incremental reform.
One of the structural issues themes that has been identified for consultation is streamlining of regimes. Some of the responses at the scoping stage identified that the variety of access mechanisms may give rise to “regulatory arbitrage” or “forum shopping”, which can often involve public bodies being required to process multiple requests under different frameworks. By their nature, slightly different outcomes may arise out of requests under different legal rules.
In this context, it is interesting to consider the different underlying purposes of the freedom of information regime and the right of access to personal data provided in the GDPR. A recent High Court judgment in Director of Public Prosecutions v the Information Commissioner  IEHC 752 demonstrated the potentially broad scope of freedom of information requests for public bodies and limited nature of available exemptions. In this briefing, we consider how this interpretation of FOI contrasts against the access right under data protection law.
DPP v the Information Commissioner concerned an request for records made by a Sunday Times journalist (the “Requester”) under the FOI Act, which sought correspondence between public bodies (including the DPP) and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (the “Department”) in relation to fees paid to barristers and solicitors.
The Department refused access to its records of the correspondence on the basis of section 42(f) of the Act, which creates an exemption for records “held” or “created” by the DPP or the Attorney General. The Requester appealed to the Information Commissioner, who ruled that the letters sent to the Department by the DPP were not subject to disclosure as these records had been “created” by the DPP. However, copies of letters sent by the Department to the DPP could not benefit from the exception in section 42(f) and were subject to disclosure. The DPP appealed the treatment of these records to the High Court on a point of law.
For the Record: Narrow Parameters of Section 42(f) Exception
- In his judgment, Simmons J noted that the “conundrum” presented by the appeal as for the purposes of the FOI Act there were two sets of records: the original correspondence issued by the Department to the DPP and the duplicate copies of that correspondence held by the Department.
- The Court noted the test from Minister for Health v Information Commissioner  IESC 40 where the Supreme Court held that there are two questions to be asked in considering requests for records:
- whether it is a record held by the public body, which was easily answered as the Department held copies or originals of all the correspondence between it and the DPP.
- whether the requester has a right of access. This question turned on whether copies and originals can be considered the same “record” and the DPP made two arguments. The first was that the copies or originals held by the DPP are the same “record” as the counterpart held by the Department and hence, they all are within the scope of the section 42(f) exception. The second argument was that any alternative interpretation of the parameters of section 42(f) would subvert the intention of the legislature and permit access to exempted records by the back door.
- The Court rejected the first argument on the basis of the natural and ordinary meaning of the definition of a “record” in section 2 of the FOI Act, which “indicates that a copy of a thing, which is itself a record, is also a record”. The legislative intent of this definition was to ensure that a public body could not refuse a request on the basis that the original is held with a different public body. Therefore, the DPP and the Department do not hold the same “records” even though the information is identical in both.
- The Court also rejected the purposive argument as the legislative intention of ensuring sufficient protection of sensitive information was served with the presence of other exemptions in the FOI Act, such as the exemption for legal professional privilege or where the record itself could reasonably be expected to prejudice the prevention, investigation or prosecution of or enforcement of any law. The Court’s view was that the DPP’s interpretation would result in a “radical reduction in the right of access”, particularly as the same exception applied to documents created or held by the Attorney General. Simmons J observed that potentially any record could be excluded from a request merely by the fact of sending a duplicate to the Attorney General or the DPP.
- On this basis, the Court found that the DPP and the Department do not hold the same “record” for the purpose of the FOI Act, even if one holds a copy of a record sent by or to the other and notwithstanding that the same information may be contained in both records. As such, the Court held that the Requester was entitled to the records or parts of records comprising the Department’s responses to requests from the DPP where those records are held by the Department; notwithstanding the fact that the DPP may hold identical records.
Show me the Data: Contrast with the Article 15 GDPR Access Right
- This judgment shows both the potentially broad nature of a request for records under the FOI Act and the narrow scope of exceptions for public bodies under the FOI regime. Some of the factors underpinning the High Court’s judgment, such as the concept of a “record”, contrast sharply with the access right for data subjects to their personal data under data protection law.
- In FOI, the regime is tied to the concept of a “record” held by the FOI body. As noted by the High Court, there can be two records for FOI purposes, even where the two documents are near copies of each other, containing the exact same information. However, as these records are distinct for FOI purposes, they can be treated differently in the application of exceptions.
- This contrasts with the access right contained in Article 15 GDPR, where the entitlement is to the personal data itself, i.e. the underlying information regardless of the format in which that personal data is held. As the Article 15 right is linked to the underlying information, there is no obligation on a controller to provide multiple copies of the same personal data (even where that same personal data is held in different formats). Additionally, as the Article 15 right is focussed on personal data, any exceptions applied under data protection law should be consistent across all versions of the personal data.
Takeaway for FOI bodies
For public bodies, there are clear challenges of managing access to records and data across overlapping but distinct regimes. At present, the Department is conducting a public consultation seeking views on the structural issues and incremental reform themes set out in the public consultation document (available here), which will close on 12 August. It will be interesting to see if the practical and operational challenges for public bodies are considered when the report of the consultation is published later this year. In the meantime, the challenges for public bodies of successfully addressing the different access regimes remain.
The authors would like to thank Shay Buckley for his contribution to this briefing.