- The ‘Right to Know… Power to Change’ is the mantra guiding the operations of the Access to Information Unit, a department under the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM).
- The ATI Act gives persons the legal right to access all copies of official documents held by government bodies, except those exempt from disclosure.
- The unit conducts islandwide public education and outreach activities, engages in training programmes for public authorities, and liaises with non-governmental organisations and other stakeholder groups. It is also the Secretariat to the Access to Information Appeal Tribunal.
The ‘Right to Know… Power to Change’ is the mantra guiding the operations of the Access to Information Unit, a department under the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM).
It is mandated to monitor the implementation and application of the Access to Information (ATI) Act’s provisions across all government entities.
The Unit’s primary functions include providing guidance and training for ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) on how to interpret and administer the Act; identifying and addressing difficult or problematic issues arising from the Act’s implementation; monitoring compliance with the Act’s stipulations; and educating the public in respect of their rights and obligations under the legislation.
The ATI Act gives persons the legal right to access all copies of official documents held by government bodies, except those exempt from disclosure.
Official documents refer to those in the possession, custody or control of a government body and which are connected to its functions.
‘Exempt’ documents are those related to deliberate processes of the Government and Cabinet; those affecting national security, international relations and personal privacy; and those subject to legal professional privilege.
Consequent on the Act’s passage in 2002 and its implementation in 2004, the framework has been created which safeguards the right of citizens and other members of the public to access official government documents.
Senior Legal Officer in the OPM with interim oversight responsibility for the ATI Unit, Shereika Hemmings-Allison, notes that the entity’s overarching goal is to promote transparency and accountability of the Government, and public participation in the national decision-making process.
“The Act empowers citizens to be kept in the know…to know exactly what the Government is doing, and empowers them to access official documents, verify national decisions on matters of social and national interest and also matters that concern the finances of the country, health and environment,” Mrs. Hemmings-Allison outlines while speaking with JIS News
She adds that the Act also empowers persons to have their personal record amended in instances where the information is incorrect, misleading or outdated.
In terms of the Unit’s achievements, the Senior Legal Officer reports that for the year 2015, approximately 1,230 requests for access to information were processed by public authorities, inclusive of MDAs, statutory bodies, parish councils and government companies. This was three more than the previous year.
“In relation to 2015, 427 requests for access to information were granted, 18 denied and 46 applications were granted partial access,” she informs.
Mrs. Hemmings-Allison says that for the quarter ending March 2016, a total of 141 requests were received.
Of this number, 54 were approved, three granted partial access, 15 applications transferred to other public entities, and another 58 carried forward to the April to June quarter.
“In some cases, documents were not found or the documents did not exist, or a person may have called back not wanting the information anymore,” Mrs. Hemmings-Allison explains.
She notes that the requests or concerns are mainly related to child protection, government expenditure, and health and environment issues.
The Senior Legal Officer informs that the application for access to an official document must be made to the public authority which holds it.
“The application may be made in writing, via telephone or other electronic means. Once an application for such access is received by the public authority, it is required by law to acknowledge receipt and grant access of the document to the applicant as long as it is not one of the exempt documents,” she outlines.
Mrs. Hemming-Allison further explains that the public authority is required by law to respond no later than 30 days after the date of the application’s receipt. They are also required to respond within the same timeline if the application was transferred to it by another public authority.
“The public authority is at liberty to extend the 30-day period if it is that the circumstances of the case require such an extension,” the Senior Legal Officer points out.
She notes that it is proposed to have an access to information officer at each government entity to deal with the public’s requests and concerns.
“It is a requirement that each public entity should have an access to information officer. We currently have 85 and some agencies are yet to come on board to appoint somebody,” Mrs. Hemmings-Allison highlights.
“The person’s role is mainly to process the requests that come in, ascertain the material if it is ascertainable, make a determination as to whether or not there is anything in that document that would be exempt from disclosure or whether the document itself would have been exempt from disclosure,” she outlines.
Additionally, she says the officers would also be responsible for communicating to the applicant, information on whether or not the application has been granted, denied or deferred.
Mrs. Hemmings-Allison informs that the ATI Act also guarantees the right to appeal any decision, any failure to provide information, or any other infringement of the right to access official documents.
Consequent on this, the Unit has established the Access to Information Appeal Tribunal – an oversight body that ensures that the rights of access by the public are guaranteed when appeals are filed against public authorities.
The unit conducts islandwide public education and outreach activities, engages in training programmes for public authorities, and liaises with non-governmental organisations and other stakeholder groups. It is also the Secretariat to the Access to Information Appeal Tribunal.
For more information on the Unit and the Access to Information Act, interested persons may call 876-968-3166 or 876-968-8282. Members of the public may also send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the website at www.ati.gov.jm.