Request for information about appointments to Fire Service Commission
Request for information about appointments to the Fire Service Commission—two letters withheld—contents raised privacy and confidentiality issues—good reason to withhold
The requester asked the Minister of Internal Affairs for certain information about appointments made to the Fire Service Commission. The Minister released the relevant information except for two letters written to him by a candidate under consideration for appointment as Chairperson of the Commission. The Minister withheld these letters, relying in one case on sections 9(2)(a) and 9(2)(ba)(i) of the OIA, and in the other, on section 9(2)(ba)(i).
The first letter included references to a person whom the writer wished to recruit for a proposed policy unit for the Commission. The person was unaware at the time this letter was written that he had been so named and the appointment did not eventuate. It was concluded that disclosure of these references would infringe the privacy of the person so named and there were no countervailing public interest considerations that would outweigh the need to protect the privacy interest identified. Section 9(2)(a) therefore applied.
In considering whether section 9(2)(ba)(i) applied to the information at issue, it was necessary to determine whether the two letters were ‘subject to an obligation of confidence’. An examination of the contents of the letters and the circumstances in which they had been written led to the view that they were so subject. It was accepted that the process of appointment to public office or to a statutory body should enable information to be supplied to the relevant Minister on a confidential basis by persons being considered for appointment. This allows candidates to make known to the Minister their views on issues relating to the appointment and their approach to these issues. There is a public interest in the continued supply of such information to the Government. If it were known that such information might be released, candidates would be likely to be inhibited in freely expressing their views to the Minister and this would prejudice the public interest. It was therefore concluded that section 9(2)(ba)(i) applied to the information at issue.
Consideration was then given in terms of section 9(1) of the OIA to whether there were any factors, which, in the public interest, outweighed the identified interest in withholding the information. In this respect, the requester had argued that there was a strong public interest, namely the widespread public interest and debate about a conflict of interest between the subsequent appointment of the writer of the two letters as Chairman of the Commission with his previous position. However, the information at issue was not relevant to these considerations and, after balancing the competing interests, the view was formed that there were no public interest considerations strong enough to outweigh the identified interests in withholding.
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.