For at least the fourth time in the past year, the Ministry of Finance has not complied with the tenets of Cayman’s Freedom of Information Law, the information commissioner’s office has ruled.
The latest case, involving a news organisation’s request for a report on the proposed revamp of the country’s legal aid system, took more than a year to complete.
In the time it took to answer the open records request, Cayman’s government abandoned its original plan to create a legal services office and has placed the legal aid programme back into the courts office.
Last week, Information Commissioner Jennifer Dilbert ordered the Ministry of Finance to either release the majority of the document or seek to challenge her decision in Grand Court.
Mrs. Dilbert expressed her keen displeasure with how the request for information proceeded.
“The extreme length of the delays in this case and the apparent unwillingness of the ministry to act in a responsible way under the law testify to an unacceptably negligent attitude towards legal compliance with the FOI Law that can only be condemned in the gravest terms,” the information commissioner’s ruling read.
Contacted for comment on the ruling, Premier McKeeva Bush’s office released the following statement, “The Premier was not involved in this matter at any point in the procedure.”
Mr. Bush, who is also the minister of finance, declined to make further comment.
Cayman’s Information Commissioner ruled in February that the Ministry of Finance, Tourism and Development ‘failed to comply’ with several sections of the Freedom of Information Law and regulations following a request made by the Caymanian Compass.
The February decision stated that, while the ministry did not completely deny an open records applicant their right to information, it indicated the ministry’s actions “had the practical effect of denying the applicant’s right to access the requested record for a period of 79 days”.
Moreover, the Information Commissioner’s Office found that – at the time – the ministry had not confirmed anyone in the specific role of information manager, which is the person within a government department designated to handle open records requests.
Late last year, the commissioner found the same ministry had contravened the FOI Law by failing to respond to two open records requests.
The first case involved a request for information submitted on 12 May, 2010, on how much the Ministry of Finance, Tourism and Development spent on travel for Premier McKeeva Bush and his companions, and how much was spent on each trip.
According to the findings of an investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Officer, the applicant in that case had still not received a full response 210 days after the application was made.
In the second case, on 3 June, 2010, the Caymanian Compass requested a copy of a report on an independent review of the Fire Services Department following the conviction of a male fire officer for indecent assault of a female colleague. The Compass also requested details of any new procedures put in place by the Fire Services Departments in response to the review and matters arising from the court case.
On 10 November, 160 days after the request was made, the human resources manager said the requested report pertained to an ongoing legal case and could not be released.
What to do?
The FOI Law does not provide any direct penalties for a government entity that fails to follow its legal requirements.
It is a crime for anyone to destroy, erase or conceal evidence sought in an open records request. Also, if an entity is taken to court for failure to comply with the FOI Law they could be found in contempt of court.
“This, unfortunately, does little to remedy any procedural issues which were addressed in a formal order,” Mrs. Dilbert said.
However, Mrs. Dilbert also pointed out that most of the troubles with the open records requests involving the Ministry of Finance, Tourism and Development occurred in 2010. Of late, she maintains the ministry has been more responsive.
One of the changes made was that, for FOI requests, the ministry was divided into three separate sections: Finance, Tourism and Development – each with responsibility to answer questions in its own specific area.
“The commissioner does believe this change is for the better and expects it to result in better response times,” a statement from Mrs. Dilbert read. “It is important to note that the procedural issues highlighted … were unacceptable, they occurred before these recent changes were put in place.”