Editorial for 5 August: FOI law: Let the sun shine in

The government’s insurance company, CINICO, got quite a slapping from the Cayman Islands Information Commissioner last week in her latest decision.

Jennifer Dilbert described the company’s response to a Freedom of Information request from an applicant as “appalling” and said CINICO had been “uncommonly unhelpful” toward her office and the applicant.

She has also summoned CINICO officials to undergo training so they can better handle Freedom of Information requests in the future.

Mrs. Dilbert, in her latest decision, said CINICO’s response, or lack thereof, to the request to release minutes of a meeting and to her office’s subsequent follow-up on the failure to release the minutes in full “violated both the spirit and the letter of the Freedom of Information Law”.

Such blatant disregard for the FOI law may have come as no surprise when the public’s right to see its own government’s information was a fledgling concept back when the law first came into force in 2009. But it’s been in place for four years now and ignorance of what the law entails is no longer a valid excuse for any government entity.

In fact, with the amount of training, public education and all round efforts to raise awareness of the law by the information commissioner’s office when the FOI legislation was first introduced, ignorance was hardly an excuse even in 2009. Now, in 2013, there’s been plenty of time for every government agency, statutory authority and government-owned company to acquaint themselves with their obligations under the law.

The information commissioner’s office was created to hear and decide appeals in requests for public records when there is a dispute involving the parties to the application. It also serves as a public educator and sometimes enforcer for the Freedom of Information Law. Since January 2009, the five-person office has considered more than 100 appeal requests.

As of May this year, 29 of those appeals had moved to the hearing stage, though only one has proceeded to a judicial review challenge in the courts – a judicial review application filed by Governor Duncan Taylor over records related to the Operation Tempura police corruption investigation.

Some government entities still appear not to have grasped that this law also applies to them. CINICO is far from the only body that has dragged its feet in complying with the law.

A report released in May by the subcommittee that reviewed the law recommended that the anonymity provision for those requesting public information should remain in place. It also recommended that no fees should be charged for any FOI request. Those recommendations, and others, were approved by a committee of the entire Legislative Assembly, so the law seems set to continue enabling the citizens of the Cayman Islands to have access to information that they have every right to see.

The FOI law has been described as “sunshine” legislation, casting light on accounts, information, reports, meeting minutes and other data that previously had been kept out of the public domain. Long may it continue.