Legal Eagle : Accessing official documents from public authorities

February 27, 2017

Although the Access to Information Act, 2004 [the Act] has been promulgated for well over 15 years, many Jamaicans have not used it sufficiently to have sight of official documents from the various entities.

The object of the Act is to provide transparency, accountability and public participation, which are fundamental principles of our constitutional democracy.

The Act provides that every person shall have a right to access official documents, except those documents that are exempted. Official documents that are exempt from disclosure are those that would prejudice security, defence, international relations or contain information communicated in confidence between the Government and foreign governments. In addition, Cabinet submissions, note, decisions, deliberations and records of Cabinet are also exempt.

Generally, documents relating to law enforcement, those subject to legal privileges, those affecting national security, disclosure that would affect the national economy, those revealing deliberations, heritage sites, documents affecting personal privacy and other official documents are exempt.

Anyone who wishes to obtain access to an official document must make an application to the public authority which has custody of the document. The application may be made in writing, by telephone or other electronic means. The applicant is required to provide sufficient details to enable the public authority to identify the document. However, should the information provided by the applicant be insufficient so that the authority would not be able to locate the document, the said public authority will allow consultation with the applicant in order to identify the document.

Upon receipt of the application, the public authority is under a duty to assist the applicant to identify the document, acknowledge receipt of the application in the manner prescribed by law and grant access to the applicant, if the document is not exempt. The public authority is also required to respond to the application as soon as possible, but no later than 30 days after receiving the application or 30 days after receipt of an application from another authority. The public authority may extend the time, should there be reasonable cause.

An applicant whose application for access has been refused, or who has received only limited access, may apply for an internal review. Review of documents relating to defence, international relations, Cabinet documents, law enforcement and national economy must be conducted by the relevant minister within 30 days, and for other documents by the permanent secretary or the principal officer in charge of the public authority in the same time period.

A person who is aggrieved by the decision of the internal review may appeal to the tribunal established for that purpose. The appeal must be lodged within 60 days of the notification of the decision of the internal review.

To those who care about our democracy, let's apply and have sight of these official documents in order to better understand the decisions and operation of Government.

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