Request for final audit/operational review in relation to Spring Hill prisoner riot
Disclosure of final audit report, in which the sources of information were not attributed or identifiable, would not inhibit future expression of free and frank opinions—strong public interest in release of information that set out Department’s analysis of how the riot occurred, the quality of the response, and the lessons learned from the operational review
A requester sought a copy of the Department of Corrections’ report into the Spring Hill prisoner riot of 2013. He complained to the Chief Ombudsman when the Department released summary information and withheld the full report under sections 6(c) and 9(2)(ba)(i) of the OIA. Because the Department’s concerns related to the need to preserve the flow of ‘free and frank’ information during internal audits and operational reviews, the Chief Ombudsman also considered the application of section 9(2)(g)(i).
The Department’s concern was that release of the full report would have a chilling effect on the willingness of individuals involved in an operational review to be forthcoming about what might have gone wrong. The purpose of an operational review is to learn from what happened in order to improve responses to similar incidents in the future, and it is in the public interest that this process is as robust as possible.
The Chief Ombudsman formed the provisional opinion that section 6(c) of the OIA justified some redactions to the report. However, there was no good reason—including under section 9(2)(g)(i)—to withhold the report in full.
He accepted that if release of information had the effect of inhibiting individuals from free and frank expression of opinions or imparting crucial information, then that would be detrimental to the effectiveness of an operational review process. That would be more likely to occur if the information disclosed included copies of working material and source information. However, in a final report which summarised an internal review process, the information was not generally attributable to particular individuals, and represented the considered conclusions and advice of the authors of the review.
The Chief Ombudsman stated:
Participants in an operational review exercise should be aware that they are working in an environment where the OIA applies. In that environment there are no absolute guarantees of confidentiality. Moreover, where the incident in question is as serious as a prison riot, they should be aware that the public interest may nevertheless require the release of information.
The report identified a number of organisational and systemic issues. There was nothing in the report that singled out any individual for blame, nor was it possible to identify any particular individual as a source of information for the review. He was therefore not persuaded that disclosure of the report would have a chilling effect on the efficacy of future operational reviews.
Even if section 9(2)(g)(i) applied, the need to withhold the full report was outweighed by the public interest in release. The Chief Ombudsman refuted the suggestion that the public interest in release had diminished because the riot occurred three years ago. He also rejected the argument that the small number of OIA requests received for the report was indicative of the low level of public interest in release. He commented:
A prison riot is one of the most serious events that can occur in any custodial system. It indicates a breakdown in the core responsibilities to manage offenders safely and humanely. The potential for harm to prison staff, emergency services and inmates cannot be understated. In this case, a number of staff and prisoners were injured, some seriously, and there was clearly a potential for loss of life, especially once the fires took hold.
In his provisional opinion, there was a strong public interest in release of information that set out the Department’s analysis of how the riot occurred, the quality of the response, and the lessons learned from the operational review. That public interest had not been addressed by the release of summary information.
The Department accepted the Chief Ombudsman’s provisional opinion in relation to section 9(2)(g)(i). It agreed to publish the report with some redactions under section 6(c) of the OIA in order to maintain operational security. The Chief Ombudsman formed the final opinion that the redactions were justified under that provision.
Compare this case with 176579, audit staff notes and 174281, auditor’s working papers.
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.