A local law firm said this week that it has been unable, for the past few years, to retrieve public documents relating to how Cayman Islands Immigration Department boards and staff members process various applications for work permits, permanent residence and Caymanian status.

The firm, HSM Chambers, filed an open records request via the Freedom of Information Law on Oct. 31, 2017 seeking the information.

By Friday, May 11, 2018, that request was still pending via an appeal hearing before the Ombudsman’s office.

“The documents are still outstanding,” said Ministry of Immigration Chief Officer Wesley Howell. “I understand they are being compiled from across all of the Department of Immigration.”

“We believe that, as a matter of Cayman Islands law, and as a matter of natural justice, all applicants … are legally entitled to know the yardstick against [which] they and others are being measured,” HSM Managing Partner Huw Moses told the Cayman Compass last week. “To date, we have not received the requested documents.”

It seems the HSM law firm is not the only entity or person struggling with open records matters filed with immigration officials.

Acting Chief Immigration Officer Bruce Smith said Thursday that the Immigration Department received 65 Freedom of Information requests since May 2017 and that 52 of those “have been addressed” with 13 yet to be finalized.

However, Mr. Smith pointed out that immigration historically receives the largest number of open records requests out of any government department. He noted these requests are often complex and require coordination of resources between various sections of the department to answer.

Of the 13 open records requests remaining, seven are overdue – meaning they have not been answered within the time line set by the Freedom of Information Law. The department has also been hampered in responding to requests following the departure of long-time open records manager Petula Twinn in February.

Mr. Smith said the department has recently assigned two specialists to handle open records requests in the future.

“Requests under the Freedom of Information Law are one of our competing priorities and we shall not settle for what is satisfactory, but strive to raise the standards in which this is managed,” Mr. Smith said.

Both Mr. Smith and Mr. Howell apologized for the delays in responding to requests out of time. “I am confident that the team we have assembled will soon get the [department’s] FOI team to the point where we are responding to FOI requests in a timely and high quality manner,” Mr. Howell said.

Bill of Rights

Cayman’s various immigration boards – and other appointed bodies – previously operated under guidelines that have never been made public, although they may have existed or were simply known but not written down.

The primary concern in such instances involves section 19 of the Cayman Islands Constitution Order’s Bill of Rights. Section 19 of the bill states that all actions of public officials must be “lawful, rational, proportionate and procedurally fair.”

“Every person whose interests have been adversely affected by such a decision or act has the right to request and be given written reasons for that decision or act,” Section 19 of the Bill of Rights states.

This is difficult to do if there are no expressly written operating policies and procedures attached to whatever appointed board is making the decision. It was for this reason, in 2012, as the new bill of rights was coming into effect, the Human Rights Commission advised all appointed boards to make public their policies and operating procedures.

“One of the things that we’ve said to them is that written policies and procedures should be available,” Commissions Secretariat Manager Deborah Bodden said at the time. “There is no reason, unless they can be exempted under FOI, there is no reason that the general public cannot understand what they need to do.”

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