Commissioner bemoans lack of FOI knowledge
Cayman Islands Information Commissioner Jennifer Dilbert has said that she was quite surprised at the lack of knowledge displayed regarding the territory’s Freedom of Information Law during a February candidates’ forum held at the University College of the Cayman Islands.
“[The forum] showed an overall lack of understanding of the entire law,” Mrs. Dilbert said Monday.
For instance, the participants in the 20 February forum seemed to be of the view that everything done within Cabinet, the central governing body made up of elected ministers, the deputy governor, the attorney general, and the Cabinet secretary, was supposed to be withheld from release under the FOI Law.
Absolutely not correct, Mrs. Dilbert said during an interview with the Caymanian Compass.
“It’s not just because something goes to Cabinet that it’s secret,” she said. “What was the most frustrating thing listening to the debate was that they were talking about records being secret and they’re not. Then they were talking about needing a law to change that and we already have a law.”
There are exemptions to the release of information held by Cabinet under the FOI Law. Section 19 of the law says a record is exempt from disclosure if it contains opinions, advice or recommendations prepared for the proceedings of Cabinet. A separate section of the FOI Law says a record is exempt if it contains a record of consultation or deliberations arising in the course of Cabinet proceedings.
However, the decisions made by Cabinet wouldn’t be automatically exempt. In fact, that would have to be decided on a case-by-case basis and in any event, Mrs. Dilbert said: “You would expect that some of the decisions of Cabinet would be made public proactively”.
In addition, any factual reports that come before Cabinet would not necessarily be exempted from release under the FOI Law, Mrs. Dilbert said.
Another issue not considered during the UCCI candidates’ forum was that, while exemptions from release do apply to records that contain opinions, advice or recommendations prepared for the Cabinet, those records are still subject to a “public interest test” under the law. In other words, if it’s determined to be in the public interest to release those records, they could still be made public despite exemptions contained in the law.
Also, causing some misunderstanding during the forum were statements made about 20-year exemptions related to Cabinet records. That 20-year time period, according to Mrs. Dilbert, applies to almost any record exempted from release under the FOI Law. It has nothing to do specifically with Cabinet.
The only records exempted for a longer period of time are personal information [exempted forever] and records of a particular historical nature [exempted for 75 years].
In attempts to clear up matter, Mrs. Dilbert has met with six candidates for office and has extended an invitation to meet with any others who wish to learn more about FOI.
“This is a fundamental tool for upholding good governance and human rights,” Mrs. Dilbert wrote in a letter to the candidates on 26 February. “I believe it is a topic that each candidate in the upcoming election, and even more importantly, all of our legislators, should have a good understanding of.”