Stakeholders are asked to please note the following regarding the potential impact of reduced staffing, closure of offices and/or consequent extended use of remote working facilities in FOI Bodies responding to the Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.
Where an FOI request is received by an organisation, it must be responded to on the timeline provided for in the legislation. There is no way under the terms of the 2014 Act of extending or otherwise abridging that requirement because of office closures on health and safety grounds. Arrangements should be put in place to ensure that requests received during any closure are assigned and processed. Arrangements should be made to ensure that the main organisational FOI email accounts as well as requests received by post will be monitored on an ongoing basis.
If a situation arises where post is not being collected or delivered, arguably postal requests are not “received”, but in any case to preserve continuity of service FOI Units are encouraged to redirect requesters where possible towards electronic channels, including by updating websites accordingly. Websites should also be updated to flag the likelihood of disruption to FOI service owing to closures, reduced staffing, and the need to prioritise critical functions.
It may be possible for decision-makers to effectively respond to FOI requests using remote working arrangements, in which case requests must be processed as normal. Where it is not possible to access records in order to carry out the necessary searches, the requester should be advised of this fact and the reason for it. Where appropriate a proposal may be made to reduce the scope of their request, or to withdraw for the time being and resubmit once full access to organisational records is available.
Officers must be conscious of the potential inconvenience caused to the requester, and should endeavour to facilitate them, including through providing such information relevant to their request as is possible under the circumstances.
Requesters are urged to take a pragmatic and proportionate approach to their use of FOI in light of the resourcing and operational issues being faced by organisations in responding to an unprecedented public health challenge, and to engage with bodies with a view where possible towards reaching a satisfactory arrangement.
Otherwise, a decision should issue within the statutory timeframes. However, when assessing the requirement to carry out all “reasonable” searches per section 15(1)(a) of the 2014 Act, it may be relevant that full access to organisational records is unavailable in the interests of health and safety. In addition, section 15(1)(c) may apply where processing the request would create a “substantial and unreasonable interference” on the work of the body under the prevailing conditions.
FOI Bodies should be mindful of the potential for a backlog to build where requests are not handled for the duration of any office closure, and accordingly should aim to dispose of cases within time insofar as possible, acknowledging in decisions where necessary instances where the ability to process a request has been affected by the circumstances.
This guidance will apply pending further communication from this Department, please do not hesitate to contact the FOI Central Policy Unit by email at email@example.com if you have any queries regarding the above.