Judge critical of CoP in FOI request lawsuit

A HIGH COURT judge has labelled as “baseless” concerns raised by the Commissioner of Police as reasons for his decision to refuse to give a police officer information on an investigation.

PC Vishal Singh had asked for details of the probe into an incident in which he was shot by a prison officer in 2015 in Sangre Grande.

In a written decision, Justice Margaret Mohammed also said public authorities did not grasp their obligations under the Freedom of Information Act.

She held that the commissioner “breached his statutory duty” by failing to take reasonable steps to provide the information sought by PC Vishal Singh within the statutory period of 30 days under section 15 of the Freedom of Information Act.

She also said the commissioner’s conduct was not consistent with the objective of the FOIA, and sent it back to the commissioner to provide some of the information. It will be redacted to hide the photograph, signature and name of the licensee of the gun used to shoot Singh.

The commissioner has 14 days to provide his reasons for withholding other information Singh asked for.

Singh was shot on August 10, 2015, allegedly by a prison officer, at Guaico Trace Extension. He was said to have been on duty at the time. He still has a bullet in his back.

Singh sought the information in his pursuit of legal action. On August 9, 2018, he asked the commissioner for information on the licence of the gun used to shoot him and whether the prison officer had a Firearm User’s Licence (FUL). He also asked for information on the investigation, reasons why the prison officer was not charged, and station diary extracts, other supporting evidence and certain policies and procedures.

A station diary extract was provided. After Singh filed the application for judicial review the commissioner, then represented by attorneys from the Chief State Solicitor’s Office and the Solicitor General Department, consented to provide some of the information.

By March 20, 2019, the commissioner’s legal representation changed and Singh’s attorneys, Anand Ramlogan, SC, Ganesh Saroop and Alana Rambaran,received a letter from the commissioner saying he had decided to refuse the request because it was exempt.

Mohammed was critical of the “remarkable about-turn” by the commissioner, saying it was totally unacceptable conduct.

She said the about-turn put Singh on an unequal footing, since he was a police officer and had to incur costs against the commissioner, who had the resources of the State to fund his litigation.

While she agreed that some of the information Singh sought was “personal,” she ordered that it should be redacted, and slammed as “baseless” the commissioner’s concerns that the court would be setting a dangerous precedent of giving the ordinary public access to information on FULs and would put make who own guns vulnerable to the criminal elements.

“This is a serious matter, since it involved two officers from different arms of law enforcement, and it is unknown if (prison officer’s name called) was or was not charged for using a licensed firearm,” she said, adding that there was no evidence that it would put public and private FUL holders in a vulnerable position.

“It is reasonable to conclude that one of the reasons these persons required and received the FUL was to protect their person and property,” she said.

The judge said disclosure “would go a long way to allay any perception” that the commissioner “is not involved in any cover-up of the incident.”

“This is a police officer requesting the FUL of the person who shot him, and there has been little if any investigation into the incident,” she said.

She noted that the alleged shooter was a prison officer who may, or may not, have possibly used an illegal firearm.

“In my opinion, the failure to disclose the information would reinforce the claimant’s suspicion that there was a cover-up in the investigation,” Mohammed said.

She also maintained that disclosure of the information to Singh would “improve the public perception that police service is serious in having persons who are culpable held responsible for their actions.”

Mohammed said the commissioner’s defence “demonstrated a lack of understanding and appreciation” of his duty under the FOIA.

“The defendant’s duty under the FOIA was to either provide the information or, if not ,provide reason for not doing so,” she said.

“The FOIA was introduced in 2000 and for the last 19 years, there has been a high volume of case law generated where several sections of the FOIA have been analysed by the courts of every level in this jurisdiction

“Despite the guidance given by the courts to public authorities/public officials there remains a lack of awareness or appreciation of the duty imposed by the FOIA on them. The instant action is yet another such case,” Mohammed said.

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