Saturday, 26 September 2015

Zilch, Nada, Bupkes - what happens when you get no response?

The Freedom of Information Act allows public bodies to refuse a request on certain grounds. If you make a request, you may be refused for any of these reasons. The refusal may be justified. But what if your request is not refused, but simply denied? Don't cry. It's not the end.

FOI: sometimes, it's a sprint. You submit a request, you get a quick response, it's finished. More often than not, though, it's a marathon: clarifications, internal reviews, appeal to the Information Commissioner, long wait, sometimes even court action. The experienced FOI requester knows the most important thing you need is patience.

But sometimes, you fall at the first hurdle. Sometimes, you wait and wait. And wait.

And there's nothing. Zilch, Nada, Bupkes. No response at all.

It's quite disconcerting, and if you're not used to FOI, it can be quite offputting to find an organisation has not even acknowledged your existence. Unfortunately, people unused to the FOI process sometimes leave it there, put off for good. And that's a pity.

Don't give up

The first thing to remember is, don't give up. The law says, very plainly, that you have the right to a response - even if it's a refusal. You should get an acknowledgement of your request within two weeks of its receipt.

If you've not heard anything within two weeks, you should take action. Firstly, to avoid any embarrassment, check that the message was actually sent. If it's an email, is it still sitting in your Outbox? If it's a letter, is it sitting around the house, waiting for a stamp?

Okay, once you're sure the message arrived, you need to get in touch with the public body. Remember the old rule: never assume there's a conspiracy when a cock-up is possible. The chances are it's never been actually noticed. It may be sitting in an unattended email account. It may have been deleted by a spam filter. It may have been sent to the wrong person, who has no clue that it needs a response. All of these things happen, innocently. Send a polite request to check that it's been received. This will usually be all that's needed.

Sometimes, especially with organisations who get very few requests, the person who gets it goes into a panic. They don't know how to respond, so they do nothing. A reminder should get them moving. Remind them (politely, of course) that if they don't respond in time, they're breaking the law.

What if you still get no response? Then it's time to get serious. If you have no reply at all within four weeks, this is 'deemed to be a refusal'. You can treat it as if they had refused your request. You have four weeks to request an 'internal review'. This means contacting the organisation again, telling them that you are taking their refusal to reply as a refusal of the request, and therefore you want them to review their action.

They then have to get their finger out.

What if they still don't reply? That's when you contact the Information Commissioner's office. Their job is to make sure public bodies do what they should. Contact them (within the following six months) to appeal against the failure to respond. Normally, there is a fee for an appeal - €50, or €15 if you've got a medical card. But as long as you've requested an internal review, and still got no response, no fee is payable.

The Commissioner should write to the public body demanding they respond. Almost always, this will be enough to get action. It doesn't put you straight back at the start line - you're at the internal review stage so if the response is not satisfactory, you can appeal again to the Commissioner (paying a fee, this time).

In short - never accept no response for a response. You have the right to a reply.

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