Monday 19 August, 2019

NGOs call for consultation on Freedom of Information Act amendment

Non-governmental organisations are calling for consultation on proposed amendments to the Freedom of Information Act, which some groups have said will affect the success of applicants who decide to file for judicial review. 

In a statement, the Law Association of Trinidad and Tobago said it supports the call for public consultations on the proposed amendments, saying any substantive changes should be considered after taking into account the considerations of key stakeholders. 

The Miscellaneous Provisions (Tax Amnesty, Pensions, Freedom of Information, National Insurance, Central Bank and Non-Profit Organisations (NPO) Bill, 2019, will be debated in Parliament on June 10 and seeks to amend Clause 7 of the Freedom of Information Act, to extend the period within which a public authority is required to inform an applicant of its decision in relation to a request for information.

This period would be extended from 30 to 90 days. A public authority would, however, be required to obtain the approval of the Attorney General before refusing a request.

Several groups have called for Clause 7 of the Bill to be withdrawn and for the issue to be discussed before any changes are made. 

"We are of the view that such far-reaching alterations of the Freedom of Information Act should not proceed without full public discussion and consultation," the statement said. 

NGOs who objected to the amendment include the American Chamber of Commerce of Trinidad and Tobago (AMCHAM T&T), Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers, the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago, CAISO: Sex and Gender Justice, the National Trade Union Centre, Environment Tobago, the Silver Lining Foundation, the Trinidad and Tobago Transparency Institute, Fishermen and Friends of the Sea (FFOS), the Lloyd Best Institute of the Caribbean, the Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the Banking, Insurance and General Workers Union (BIGWU), and others. 

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FFOS corporate secretary Gary Aboud said the amendment means that an Applicant may have to wait up to six months to discover a decision, which would undermine the success of a Judicial Review.

"Why is our Government weakening this critical transparency legislation upon which all Judicial Review (JR) actions depend? JR is the only opportunity where a citizen can challenge any Government decision."

"Under the JR legislation the Applicant must take action before the expiration of 90 days from the date of the decision. Without the FOIA, the dates of the decisions may be unknown."

"If the FOIA time limit is increased from 30 to 90 days then ‘substantial prejudice’ would be created because the Applicant would not be able to access critical information in order to mount any JR challenge within the 90-day stipulated time limit."

"Nebulous decisions or contracts which were only made public due to the intervention of the FOIA would now remain intentionally smothered forever. Is this in the public interest?"

The changes were introduced after a Privy Council ruling allowing for a request for information by UNC activist Ravi Balgobin Maharaj for documents pertaining to Petrotrin's failed bil­lion-dol­lar World Gas-to-Liq­uids (GTL) plant deal.

During the judgement, the Privy Council also noted that there may have been “some grounds for think­ing” that there was po­lit­i­cal involvement in a decision to drop a multi-million lawsuit against former Petrotrin chairman Malcolm Jones, who oversaw the project.

Jones resigned in 2010 in the face of allegations of misconduct and passed away due to illness in 2017.

The Bill will be discussed in Parliament on June 10, 2019.

To view the sitting online see here: https://bit.ly/2X3O4mi

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