Freedom of Information Act and the health service

Freedom of Information Act - accessing health information

What is the Freedom of Information Act 1997?

The Freedom of Information Act (1997) was brought in by the Government to allow members of the public obtain access, to the greatest extent possible, in the public interest, information in the possession of public bodies.

The original Act sought to achieve a balance between the right of access for the public and the right to privacy of certain material in the public interest. The Act came into force on April 21, 1998. Major changes to the Act in 2003 have severely restricted access to information and also saw new charges introduced for requests and appeals.

It is used heavily by journalists and politicians. For example, irishhealth.com has secured many documents under the FoI Act which have lead to major news stories. Material secured helps to show what is really going on within the Department of Health, health boards and other publicly funded agencies. Recent amendments to the law have limited the type of information that can be secured by individuals and the media.

What rights to I have under the law?

There are three legal rights for members of the public. These are:

(a) the right to obtain information held by Government Departments and public bodies. These bodies include the Department of Health, health boards, publicly funded hospitals and other health agencies.

(b) the right to obtain reasons for decisions affecting oneself

(c) the right to have official information relating to oneself amended where it is incorrect, incomplete or misleading

What health records can I access?

The original Act created a presumption of access unless otherwise prohibited. This meant that you could access most information held by public bodies. This includes letters and memos written by civil servants at the Department of Health, within the Department and to other bodies and individuals.

Under the changes introduced in 2003, access to communications between Ministers is denied for 10 years; Cabinet records are protected for 10 years; the Secretaries-General of Government Departments also have the power to bar the release of documents.

The Act normally relates to records from April 21 1998 onwards. However, a record created before this date could be accessed if it is necessary to understand material created subsequently, or if the Finance Minister makes regulations providing access to earlier records. A person has a right to obtain personal information relating to him or herself irrespective of when it was created.

You can access personal health records, for example, although there are some conditions related to psychiatric records where it would not be in the interest to give these directly to someone who is mentally ill.

What records can be withheld from release?

Some records will not be released including:

Cabinet documents, deliberations and negotiations of public bodies, records relating to law enforcement, security, industrial relations, information received in confidence, personal information, records subject to legal privilege.

Who decides whether to release material?

An official in the relevant agency will make the decision on release or non-release and requests must normally be dealt with within four weeks. However, there are some situations where the period allowed for a decision may be longer than four weeks. There have been long delays at the Department of Health in dealing with FoI requests, despite the strict time-scale requirements under the Act.

The decision of an agency can be appealed to a more senior official in the agency or to the Health Minister if it relates to the Department of Health. You need to appeal a decision to refuse access within four weeks.

The basic fee for making a request is 15 euro. Other fees may be charged for the time spent searching for and photocopying documents. An appeal for a internal review following a denial of access will cost an extra 75 euro. An appeal to the Information Commissioner will cost an extra 150 euro.

A health agency may refuse your FoI request, exclude all or part of a record or give access in a form other than you requested.

Where can I appeal a refusal to release material?

The Office of the Information Commissioner is an independent body which can review refusals of requests for information. The Commissioner's rulings are binding on the parties concerned, subject to appeal to the High Court. Appeals to the Information Commissioner may take some time due to the volume of cases.

The Information Commissioner can be contacted at 18 Lower Leeson Street, Dublin 2. Telephone 01-6785222.

The website is www.oic.gov.ie/role.htm

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