Request for details of expenditure by University for private residence of senior staff member
Request for details of expenditure by University for private residence of senior staff member—request refused to protect privacy—privacy interest existed and needed protection—public interest in University being held accountable for expenditure of public money—balance of competing interests best met by release of approximate value of items purchased, together with contextual statement giving background information about the purchase
A journalist wrote to a University requesting a list of the items it had purchased for the residence of a senior staff member and the cost of these items. The University refused to provide this information for several reasons, including that it considered the information was confidential to the University Council and the staff member concerned.
The journalist asked the Ombudsman to investigate this decision.
In response to the complaint, the University provided the Ombudsman with the information and confirmed that the items were on loan from the University to the staff member for his private residence. It explained that the items were purchased at the beginning of the staff member’s term of employment, as the original employment contract had contained a clause covering the possibility of the University providing accommodation. When no accommodation was provided, the University agreed to purchase particular items and loan them to the staff member for his personal use during the term of his employment contract. At the expiration of the lease and/or on the completion of the staff member’s current term of office, the items would be returned to the University. The University maintained that its principal concern about releasing the information was the privacy of the staff member, particularly when the employment documents were stated to be confidential.
The Ombudsman agreed that there was a privacy interest in the information, particularly as it related to the staff member’s terms and conditions of employment. He noted that the staff member had objected to the release of the information for that reason. However, before forming his view on the matter, the Ombudsman consulted the Privacy Commissioner pursuant to section 29B of the OIA.
The Privacy Commissioner agreed that there was a privacy interest in the information, but suggested it arose because the information at issue included a list and description of items purchased, and releasing these would disclose details of the staff member’s current accommodation.
Having accepted that section 9(2)(a) of the OIA applied, the Ombudsman then assessed whether there were any public interest considerations favouring release of the information that outweighed the privacy interest. The Ombudsman considered it relevant that the University was a publicly funded organisation spending a significant amount of money. In such circumstances, the Ombudsman was of the view that there was a public interest in the release of sufficient information to ensure the University was accountable for its expenditure of public money on the loaned items.
The Ombudsman accepted that there was a privacy interest that needed protection in this case. However, to meet the public interest in the University being held accountable for the expenditure of public money, it was the Ombudsman’s view that the University should release a statement which would include information about the approximate value of the household items purchased. The Privacy Commissioner agreed with this approach.
However, the University had concerns about releasing the information in this way. A meeting was arranged to discuss these concerns, where it was suggested that the University could release the information with a contextual statement giving some background information about the purchase of the items.
The University agreed to release the information with such a statement.
This case note is published under the authority of the Ombudsmen Rules 1989. It sets out an Ombudsman’s view on the facts of a particular case. It should not be taken as establishing any legal precedent that would bind an Ombudsman in future.