On 25 July 2013, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin, introduced the new Freedom of Information Bill (the “Bill”). This Bill represents a significant development in the area of freedom of information law. If enacted the Bill will repeal all existing legislation on Freedom of Information.
The Bill contains a broad definition of ‘public body’. The Bill will cover all public bodies and non-public bodies that receive significant funding from the State. As new public bodies are established they will automatically be subject to the terms of Freedom of Information. The Bill contains exemptions for some bodies so as not to affect the ability of these bodies to perform their core functions. For example An Garda Siochana, the Insolvency Service and the Treasury Management Agency Group will enjoy exemptions.
The Bill provides that there is a general right of access to records held by public bodies and that this right of access should only be set aside where the listed exemptions very clearly support a refusal of access.
Another important provision of the Bill is that the position of the Information Commissioner will be strengthened. In particular the Information Commissioner will be able to apply to court for an order requiring public bodies to comply with a binding decision of the Information Commissioner.
The grounds upon which a decision of the Information Commissioner can be appealed have been broadened. It is possible under the Bill to appeal to the High Court on a finding of fact in a case where a person contends that the release of a record would contravene a requirement imposed by EU law. Further the timescale to initiate an appeal to the High Court is being reduced from 8 weeks to 4 weeks.
It will be an offence under the Bill for an individual to wilfully and without lawful excuse to alter or destroy a record that is the subject to a Freedom of Information request. This offence carries a fine of up to €4,000.00.
The Government plans to pass this Bill relatively quickly. It is envisaged that it will be enacted this autumn.