The Government case for inserting the Attorney General into the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is illogical and, as the Law Association has shown, easily dismissed by the facts.
It is sheer nonsense for both Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley and Attorney General Faris al-Rawi to defend the amendment installing the AG into the FOIA on the grounds that it will somehow save the country from greedy lawyers collecting money from the state’s purse. Let us get this straight: the reason lawyers representing members of the public are having to be paid by the state is because the government has been wrongfully rejecting applications for information that should have been released. If the Government is serious about saving money in the FOIA process, then it should simply comply with the law. That would save a lot of money since in addition to paying the plaintiff’s legal fees, the fees of the phalanx of lawyers hired by the government also have to be paid out of the Treasury.
The government is fooling no one with this specious and, quite frankly, dishonest argument. Instead of throwing a tantrum and condemning the public for “carrying on” when they stand up for their rights, the Prime Minister needs to stop peddling such “foolishness” to quote one of his favourite words.
It is public knowledge that the Government’s sudden decision to bring the AG into the FOIA came hot on the heels of successive legal defeats of its attempts to deny legitimate information requests by members of the public. While a certain political pique is evident in the Government’s move to amend the FOIA, the far more salient issue is the dangerous politicisation of the flow of information from state entities to the public. The public’s right to access public information, apart from specified exceptions, is a cornerstone of our democracy that is worth defending with all our might. The AG’s intrusion into the process runs the risk of corrupting the information transaction between the public and the state with the political agendas of the party in power. Further, we share the view expressed by former AG Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj who had piloted the FOIA into existence in 1999, that bringing the AG into the process could result in an increase in rejected applications. The idea of the AG sitting above public servants as arbiter of their decisions is likely to intimidate and erode the confidence of public servants who may now be inclined to kick the can upstairs by denying requests and leaving the decision to the AG. Far from reducing costs, this would lead to more legal challenges with possibly more legal defeats for the state and the skyrocketing of monies to be paid out of the state’s coffers. In addition, the amendment introduces a 30-day delay for persons seeking judicial review of denial of their request.
Nothing about the proposed FOIA amendment stands to any other reason than that it is a blatant attempt by the government to control the public’s access to information and tilt the balance of power away from the public as currently exists under the FOIA, and towards itself.