How Freedom of Information (FOI) requests are processed in Ireland is set to change, following an announcement from Michael McGrath, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.

The announcement was made on the 17th June 2021, at an event organised by the Minister’s Department on the future of FOI in Ireland.

The Freedom of Information Act provides every person with the right to: (i) access certain records held by public bodies and Government Departments, (ii) correct or update any personal information held by those bodies and, (iii) to be given reasons for decisions taken by public bodies that affect them.

Acknowledging the scale of growth in FOI requests in recent years, the Minister noted that “each year since 2014 the number of requests processed has increased, with the number of FOI requests in 2019 double that of 2014 and with over 80% of requests decided on being granted in full or in part.”

Though he stated that “in general the FOI system is robust and functioning well” he confirmed at the event that “it is now timely to consider how we might find better ways of achieving transparency in public administration.”

He went on to suggest that he will consult widely before proposing any changes to the legislation. “The review process I am announcing today, will be collaborative, taking in perspectives from the public sector, academia, activists, journalists, and other stakeholders, as well as consulting with the general public.”

What might the changes mean?

While it is too early to speculate on the scale and specifics of any incoming changes, it is likely that the changes themselves and the commentary around them will renew and refresh the focus on data held by public bodies in Ireland.

This, in turn, is likely to increase the already burdensome volumes of FOI requests that public sector bodies face.

To cite an example as precedent, an update made to the Act in 2014 (which removed a €15 application fee for non-personal information requests) led to an increased burden on staff, according a senior civil servant speaking at the event.

The only assurance offered by the Minister himself was that the review would uphold the spirit of the original 1997 legislation and was “not about taking a step back”.

What are people saying about the announcement?

Séamus Dooley, of the Irish secretary of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), said the review should include reconsideration of the exclusions and exemptions under the law, including the exemption of the office of president.

Irish Legal News also reported that Mr Dooley had called for re-establishment of the user panels which provided feedback following the introduction of the original Act.

He said: “These groups were never decommissioned but allowed to wither on the vine. Those of us who sat on committees never received our P45 – we were just ignored into oblivion.

“I would like to take this opportunity to suggest the re-introduction of advisory panels so that ongoing issues can be addressed and that those entrusted in managing FOI requests can identify problems which they encounter.”

What can I do to prepare for the changes?

While there is no proposal yet to analyse, it is worth taking the time now to examine the current burden that FOI requests are placing on your team.

As this burden is likely to increase with any changes, if it already presents a notable drag on productivity, it may be worth examining outsourcing the process to relieve the pressure before it builds further.

Johnson Hana work with several large public sector bodies to manage a range of legal processes, including Freedom of Information requests.

Because of the quality, efficiencies and cost savings that we enable our clients to achieve, we have been appointed to several multi-year frameworks and contracts with governmental and other public sector bodies.

‘Johnson Hana has significant experience in helping public bodies streamline their processes to assist with the collection, review and disclosure of information further to FOI requests and will continue to work with those bodies to adapt to whatever changes may come.’

Emer Durkan, Managing Director, Legal Solutions, Johnson Hana.