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Monday 17 June 2019
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[Updated] AG: No consultation – FOIA debate on Friday

Al Rawi on controversial FOIA amendments

Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi
Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi

ATTORNEY General Faris Al-Rawi says he sees no need for consultation on amendments to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but admitted to misjudging the response to the proposed changes.

To remedy this, he has circulated amendments to the Miscellaneous Provisions (Tax, Amnesty, Pensions, Freedom of Information, National Insurance, Central Bank and Non-Profit Organisations) Bill 2019 to the Opposition. The media also received a copy during a press conference Al-Rawi held Tuesday.

These amendments include dialling back on the period proposed for FOIA request responses and the review period for the Office of the Attorney General. This means instead of giving a public authority 90 days to respond to a request, instead of the current 30, the amendment now stipulates 45 days.

Instead of a 90-day review period for the AG’s office, the amendment proposes 30 days, with a stipulation that the AG must be given notice at the same time as the applicant, as well as all relevant documents. Al-Rawi also said a FOIA unit has already been established under the Office of the Attorney General for reviews.

While Al-Rawi claimed to be responding to public comments made about the bill, some civil society organisations say he must not have been listening.

Managing Director of the Lloyd Best Institute, Sunity Maharaj, when contacted, said civil society asked that Al-Rawi withdraw the amendments and facilitate consultations.

“He has unilaterally decided that what people wanted was a reduction of the length of time. We said any changes to FOIA need to be discussed with civil society for their input. We asked that he withdraws it." Maharaj said Al-Rawi is a politician and knows the risk of ignoring public opinion. The TT Chamber of Commerce, in a release, said any amendment should be guided by international best practices and global standards.

It said the AG should defer laying the amendments in Parliament until proper public consultations have been completed.

Media Association president, Sheila Rampersad, in an interview, said the association rejects the amended amendments.

“He said he heard but did not go out for consultation. It must be consulted on. The FOIA is good legislation with poor infrastructure. The poor infrastructure has frustrated the work of journalists and proposals will deepen that frustration.

“We would want to suggest that efficiency is what the Government should have focused on. I don’t think we can remedy problems this way and make amendments around faulty implementation and faulty operalisation of the act.”

Al-Rawi Tuesday acknowledged inefficiencies in the FOIA system but said public authorities were mostly compliant.

He presented unconfirmed statistics which show a minimal denial rate for FOIA requests, which between 2010 and 2014 hovered around four per cent, with 13 per cent denials in 2013.

Those figures show an upward trend for 2015 and 2016, moving to 28 per cent and 16 per cent respectively. He described the FOIA system as being under severe attack by “UNC lawyers” who were taking advantage of loopholes and milking the State for money.

This story has been adjusted to include additional details. See original post below.

Attorney General Faris A-Rawi says he sees no need for consultation on amendments to the Freedom of Information Act, but has admitted that he had misjudged the response to the proposed changes.

To remedy this, he has circulated amendments to the Miscellaneous Provisions (Tax, Amnesty, Pensions, Freedom of Information, National Insurance, Central Bank and Non-Profit Organisations) Bill 2019 to the Opposition. The media also received a copy at a press conference the AG held this afternoon.

These amendments include dialling back on the period proposed for FOIA request responses and the review period for the Office of the Attorney General. This means instead of giving a public authority 90 days to respondto a request, instead of the current 30, the amendment now stipulates 45 days.

Instead of a 90-day review period for the AG's office, the amendment proposes 30 days, with a stipulation that the AG must be given notice at the same time as the applicant, as well as all relevant documents.

While Al-Rawi acknowledged inefficiencies in the FOIA system, he said the priority was to save the State from paying exorbitant costs to people who take public authorities to court for judicial review when they do not get the information they seek.

He gave examples of costs ranging from over $200,000 to $1.7 million.

These examples also showed the lengthy period for responses by public authorities, which range from seven months to over a year.

The amended bill will be debated in the Lower House this Friday. It was originally scheduled for debate yesterday.

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