Freedom of Information suspension to face court challenge

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The release of certain official records requested under Freedom of Information law in Northern Ireland has been suspended due to Stormont’s power-sharing crisis.

The UK Information Commissioner’s Office has told the Public Record Office for Northern Ireland (PRONI) it does not have the authority to release closed files, citing the absence of an elected minister in its overseeing government department – the Department for Communities.

The PRONI has sent letters to a number of FOI applicants, telling them while it has the papers requested it cannot now provide them.

The move is likely to impact many relatives bereaved during the Troubles who are campaigning for fresh investigations.

Lawyers acting for such families regularly use the PRONI to obtain coroner’s files from historic inquests and court papers from old criminal trials.

Belfast law firm KRW Law is set to challenge the move in forthcoming judicial review proceedings linked to a Troubles killing.

Solicitor Kevin Winters asked why the move had come now, given the power-sharing impasse had been ongoing for almost two years.

“We had been getting the documents despite the impasse,” he said.

“Now somebody has taken the view that has to change.”

He added: “The letters from PRONI demonstrate that the Freedom of Information Act 2000 is de facto inapplicable to Northern Ireland in certain circumstances.”

Civil servants have been running public services in Northern Ireland since the Stormont executive imploded in early 2017.

But there has been ongoing uncertainty as to how much authority they have to take significant decisions.

Last month, Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley passed legislation designed to give greater clarity to their decision-making powers.

Mr Winters said the ICO and PRONI had either “misapplied” that legislation or the law itself “does not go far enough to fill the void left by the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly”.

The Department for Communities confirmed the move in a post on its website.

“In the absence of the appropriate Northern Ireland minister, PRONI does not have the authority to complete the consultation process required under the Freedom of Information legislation,” it said.

“The temporary suspension applies to all transferred closed public records held by PRONI.”

The department said the suspension would last “until the appropriate Northern Ireland minister takes up post”.

In regard to Ms Bradley’s recent legislation, the department said it “does not provide a legal basis for senior officers to allow the operation of FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) in respect of transferred public records”.

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