Request for information by father relating to school suspension of son
Request by non-custodial father for information relating to his son’s suspension refused in order to protect son’s privacy—weight to be accorded to privacy vis-à-vis school’s obligations of disclosure under s 77 Education Act—summary of information released to satisfy public interest—Education Act 1989, s 77; Guardianship Act 1968, s 3
This case involved a request by a non-custodial father for information relating to the suspension of his 15 year old son. His son had been suspended from school several months earlier, and the father had not been notified. In order to ascertain the reasons for his son’s suspension, the father requested access to his son’s school file. The school Board of Trustees initially provided some information, but later refused to provide further detailed information after the son requested it be withheld. The Board considered that it was necessary to withhold this information under section 9(2)(a) of the OIA in order to protect the student’s privacy.
It emerged that after a custody dispute the Family Court had awarded the father regular access to his son and that communications between the parents had broken down. The investigation raised issues relating to:
the weight to be accorded to the student’s privacy interest in the information; and
whether the father’s parental interest in the information outweighed that privacy interest. Specifically, the father’s responsibilities as a guardian and the school’s responsibilities in terms of the Education Act were relevant.
The Privacy Commissioner was consulted for his views on the student’s privacy interest in the information at issue. The student advised the Commissioner that he had moved on from the issues leading to the suspension and wanted to put the matter behind him. The Privacy Commissioner considered that the student’s position should be accepted.
While it was acknowledged that the student had a strong privacy interest in the information requested, it was also considered that there were extremely strong public interest considerations favouring release of some information, namely:
while not a custodial parent, the requester was the student’s father and a guardian. At the time the request was refused, the Board had been provided with copies of Guardianship, Custody and Access Orders from the Family Court that confirmed the father’s guardianship and access rights.
as the student’s father and guardian, the requester has the following rights and responsibilities in terms of section 3 of the Guardianship Act which states:
Guardianship means the custody of the child (except in the case of a testamentary guardian and subject to any custody order made by the Court) and the right of control over the upbringing of a child, and includes all rights, powers and duties in respect of the person and the upbringing of the child that were at the commencement of this Act vested by any enactment or rule of law in the sole guardian of a child; and guardian has a corresponding meaning.
Section 77 of the Education Act provides that:
The principal of a state school shall take all reasonable steps to ensure that—
(a) Students get good guidance and counselling; and
(b) A student’s parents are told of matters that, in the principal’s opinion,-
(i) Are preventing or slowing the student’s progress through the school; or
(ii) Are harming the student’s relationships with teachers or other students.
Section 2 of the Education Act defines ‘parent’ in the following manner:
Parent, in relation to any person, means a person who is the person’s mother, father, or guardian.
The requester was therefore a ‘parent’ in terms of the Education Act.
The events giving rise to the student’s suspension were sufficiently serious and detrimental to his progress at school that the requester ought to have been notified in terms of section 77 of the Education Act.
For these reasons, the view was formed that there was a public interest in terms of section 9(1) of the OIA favouring the release of a summary of the events leading to the student’s suspension. This outweighed the need to protect the student’s privacy under section 9(2)(a). It was considered that the release of a summary of the relevant events would satisfy the public interest considerations, while protecting the student’s privacy interest in the complete school file. The Board of Trustees accepted this view and released a brief summary to the student’s father.
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.