Request for reports into prisoner deaths in custody
Request for reports into deaths of two prisoners in custody—s 9(2)(a) applied to parts of reports—strong public interest in release—disclosure to the Howard League subject to conditions
The Howard League asked the Department of Corrections for reports into the deaths of two prisoners in custody. The request was refused in order to protect the privacy of the deceased prisoners (section 9(2)(a) of the OIA), and the Howard League complained to the Ombudsman. It explained that the reports were sought in order to participate in the inquests.
The Chief Ombudsman consulted the Privacy Commissioner and the Chief Coroner before forming her opinion. Her opinion was that although the privacy withholding ground applied to parts of the reports, this was outweighed by the public interest considerations favouring disclosure:
I consider that there is a strong public interest in knowing that government agencies, responsible for the care of individuals such as prisoners, are ensuring the safe custody of residents, and acting appropriately when such serious incidents occur. There is also a public interest in organisations, like the Howard League, having access to [death in custody] reports in a controlled and timely manner so that they are able to contribute effectively at Inquests.
The Department’s valid concerns about privacy could be addressed through a controlled and confidential release. Accordingly, the Chief Ombudsman recommended the reports be disclosed to the Howard League, subject to the following conditions:
the copies of the reports were numbered and dated;
the reports were provided on a confidential basis;
the information contained in the reports could only be used for the purposes of preparing for and appearing before an inquest; and
the copies were returned to the Department at the completion of the inquest.
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.