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Monday 19 August 2019
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Ramesh: Keep AG out of FOIA

Ramesh Maharaj, SC
Ramesh Maharaj, SC

RAMESH MAHARAJ, the creator of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which is now to be amended, is calling on the Prime Minister to reconsider making any changes as the proposed amendments are "flawed."

Speaking at the Media Association of TT (MATT) public forum on FOIA at the Hotel Normandie yesterday, Maharaj said the proposed amendment to give power to the Attorney General (AG) to decide whether to release information requested through FOIA was flawed and would be an embarrassment to the Government.

Asked about the reasoning that attorneys were milking the system as a reason to amend the law, Maharaj said attorneys taking cases to show the Government was doing wrong should be corrected by Government not doing those wrongs rather than amending the law. He added that the Solicitor General’s office is being usurped by the amendment as it removes the decision making process from that unit and placing it in the hands of the AG when it comes to deciding whether or not legal redress should be sought.

“The Solicitor General Office is involved in this process which is a part of the AG’s office. It is frivolous and stupid to say these things. The bill is flawed and not enough thought was put into it, he (the PM) should review it properly or it will be an embarrassment to the Government” Maharaj said.

During debate on the Miscellaneous Provisions (Tax Amnesty, Pensions, Freedom of Information, National Insurance, Central Bank and Non-Profit Organisations) Bill, 2019 on Friday, the Prime Minister said the current 30-day time frame to provide information under the FOIA would remain unchanged. The Government was initially seeking to change the period from 30 days to 45 days. However, Dr Rowley said the amendment compelling the public authority to refer decisions to decline FOIA requests to the AG, who would make a determination within 30 days and advise the authority whether the applicant is entitled to access a requested document, would remain.

In his opening Maharaj said the office of the AG is the “guardian of the people” and the legislation was drafted to improve democracy and make it more difficult for the Government to be able to not account to the people.

“I think I owe a duty to say that because of the pressure put by the organisations, the government has responded, I think the PM should be congratulated for taking that initiative (by removing the extended time). The introduction of AG in the decision making is a bad signal to have a politician in that position. It is not a forward thinking matter for the AG to get involved in the decision making process.” Maharaj said.

“The public did not want ministers making the decision, for AG to take over undermines the integrity of the law,” he said as he reiterated his call for the PM to reconsider that amendment as any decision made by the AG can be considered political one not having the interest of the public.

Maharaj said the AG having the final say could create a culture of more refusal rather than approvals as public servants may wash their hands of requests and just pass them over to the AG.

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