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Minister for Courts found to have acted contrary to law over OIA request

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Failure by the Minister for Courts to make and communicate his decision on a request for official information within extended time limit — Ombudsman investigation found a failure to meet statutory obligations imposed by the OIA —appeared contrary to law

On January 8 the Minister for Courts received an Official Information Act (OIA) request for documents referred to in reply to Written Parliamentary Questions.

Time extensions were notified to the requestor three times – 5 February 2021, 5 March 2021 and 31 March 2021.

When the requestor had not received a response by 4 April, they complained to the Ombudsman.

The Chief Ombudsman asked the Minister whether he accepted there had been a delay in making and advising a decision, and also asked when a decision might be made. The Minister was also advised that under Section 15A (3) of the OIA, extensions may be made within only the 20-working day period after the original request.  In a late response from the Minister, he accepted there had been a delay.

Under the OIA, only the correspondence of 5 February 2021 was within the initial 20 working days following the request. A decision should therefore have been made and communicated to the requestor by the first extended deadline of 8 March 2021. However, this was not done until 3 May 2021.

The Chief Ombudsman formed a provisional opinion that the Minister had failed to comply with sections 15(1) and 15A of the OIA which appeared to be contrary to law.

The Chief Ombudsman noted with concern that responses to his inquiries were not timely and that the responses he did receive, along with the decision letter sent to the requestor, did not demonstrate an understanding of the statutory timeframes in the OIA. It also failed to apologise or explain the delays in responding.

The Minister accepted there had been a failure to meet the obligations of the OIA and that extensions may be communicated only within 20 working days of the original request. He provided an assurance that his office’s processes had been reviewed to improve compliance with the OIA and the standard of future communications.

The Chief Ombudsman’s final opinion was that there had been a failure to meet the statutory requirements of the OIA but noted the decision had since been made and communicated to the requestor.

Read the full case note: Delay in responding to request for certain briefings

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