Commissioner for Environmental Information, Ger Deering, has criticised some public authorities for their failure to comply with their obligations under Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) regulations. 

Speaking at the publication of his Office’s Annual Review for 2022, Mr Deering said that the situation was “unacceptable”.  He added that his Office’s experience of reviewing decisions by public authorities on requests for environmental information showed a lack of understanding and engagement by some public authorities with AIE. (AIE provides a right of access to environmental information held by public authorities.)

The Commissioner pointed out that in 2022 he upheld just four (3.1%) of the 129 decisions by public authorities that went to a binding decision by his Office. 

The Commissioner also noted a significant increase in the number of ‘deemed refusals’ - cases where a public authority failed to make a decision on an AIE request on time.  This happened in 146 cases at the ‘initial decision’ stage, and in 164 cases at the ‘internal review’ stage.

Mr Deering called for greater engagement between public authorities and those requesting access to environmental information, and for public authorities to provide greater support and an increased priority for dealing with AIE requests where necessary. 

Appeals to the Commissioner for Environmental Information

2022 saw the highest number of appeals ever made to the Commissioner for Environmental Information. 369 cases were received last year - an increase of 151% on 2021. In 2022 the Commissioner’s Office also completed the highest number of cases in its history - 227, up from 83 in 2021. 

Forestry

Over 69% of appeals to the Commissioner for Environmental Information (257 in 2022) related to forestry information.  These cases mainly involved Coillte and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.  In 90 cases Coillte failed to give a decision on time at the ‘initial decision’ stage, and in 88 cases at the ‘internal review’ stage.  The Department failed to issue a decision within the statutory time limit in 26 cases at the ‘initial stage’, and 37 at ‘internal review’ stage.

Case Studies

The Commissioner for Environmental Information’s Annual Review 2022 contains a number of case studies including:

Wicklow County Council

Wicklow County Council failed to issue a decision on time on a request for information about the pollution of the river Slaney near the requester’s home.  The Council then refused access to the information in its decision following an ‘internal review’. It made a limited submission to the Commissioner for Environmental information to explain its decision.  The Council failed to respond to the Commissioner’s requests for a more focussed submission and to clarify a number of specific issues.  The Commissioner annulled the decision of the Council saying that the Council’s conduct in relation to the appeal was unacceptable.

(See page 18 of the Commissioner’s Annual Review 2022)

Coillte

Months of correspondence between the Commissioner’s Office and Coillte was required to establish if Coillte carried out the appropriate searches in response to a request under the Access to Information on the Environment regulations. The Commissioner stated that if Coillte had supplied the relevant information when it was first requested by his Office, his review would have been far more efficient and cost-effective for all parties.

(See page 25 of the Commissioner’s Annual Review 2022)

An Bord Pleanála

An Bord Pleanála (ABP) refused a request under the Access to Information on the Environment regulations for information concerning plans for the resumption of public hearings into the Galway Ring Road.

In refusing the request ABP said that the documents sought would be available on the public planning files after the planning decision had been made.  When the Commissioner for Environmental Information discovered that a decision had been made on the planning application, he enquired if the documents were now publicly available. ABP said that the records requested were now in the public domain, but had not been sought by the requester.  ABP then informed the Commissioner that the information withheld from the requester was not available publicly as it did not form part of the planning file.  After five rounds of engagement with ABP the Commissioner found no basis for refusing access to the information and directed its release.

(See page 24 of the Commissioner’s Annual Review 2022)

END

 

Annual Review 2022 (PDF)