Long time readers will recall that this blog has been having something of a legal disagreement with both the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA), and more recently our own Office of the Commissioner for Environmental Information (OCEI). The saga has now been running for eight months, and looks set to continue for some time yet.
For new readers (and we see from our subscriber figures that there are many new readers) we should perhaps recall how this legal battle commenced. Back in February, realising that NAMA does not come under Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation – because our Minister for Finance decided not to prescribe it – we instead turned to that other arm of right to information legislation: the Environmental Information Regulations, or EIR for short.
We sent a request for information to NAMA, which was promptly refused on the basis that NAMA did not consider itself to be a public authority for the purposes of those regulations (SI 133/2007). We disagreed, citing that the Regulations stated that a body “established by or under statute” (and also that the board was appointed by the Minister) was a public authority, and therefore NAMA was a public authority. In disagreeing, we sought an internal review from NAMA. NAMA complied, and their internal review agreed with their original decision, that NAMA was not a public authority. We then appealed the matter to the OCEI, a sort of sister office to the Information Commissioner, and also headed by Emily O’Reilly. We also added a further submission to that appeal. Months passed, after which we received a letter from the OCEI – a preliminary decision which agreed with NAMA that it was not a public authority, and seeking our response. We then replied to that preliminary decision, as we were asked by the OCEI to do.
Last week we received a copy of NAMA’s reply to our response, and have been invited to make a further submission, in advance of a binding decision by the OCEI. This has actually become reasonably technical on a legal level – but we believe it is all really rather simple. The core argument (among two other significant arguments) is actually based on how one reads the legislation.
The legislation states:
“public authority” means, subject to sub-article (2)—
(a) government or other public administration, including public advisory
bodies, at national, regional or local level,
(b) any natural or legal person performing public administrative functions
under national law, including specific duties, activities or services in
relation to the environment, and
(c) any natural or legal person having public responsibilities or functions,
or providing public services, relating to the environment under the
control of a body or person falling within paragraph (a) or (b),
(i) a Minister of the Government,
(ii) the Commissioners of Public Works in Ireland,
(iii) a local authority for the purposes of the Local Government Act 2001
(No. 37 of 2001),
(iv) a harbour authority within the meaning of the Harbours Act 1946
(No. 9 of 1946),
(v) the Health Service Executive established under the Health Act 2004
(No. 42 of 2004),
(vi) a board or other body (but not including a company under the Com-
panies Acts) established by or under statute,
(vii) a company under the Companies Acts, in which all the shares are
(I) by or on behalf of a Minister of the Government,
(II) by directors appointed by a Minister of the Government,
(III) by a board or other body within the meaning of paragraph (vi), or
(IV) by a company to which subparagraph (I) or (II) applies, having
public administrative functions and responsibilities, and pos-
sessing environmental information;
Simple, right? One would think so, but NAMA doesn’t see it that way.
As far as NAMA is concerned, and indeed the preliminary view of the OCEI, it hinges mainly on what the words “and includes” mean. For us the legislation says:
a “public authority” means X and includes Y
where X represents the three types of public authority 3(1)(a)-(c) and Y is a list of bodies and categories of bodies i.e. 3(1)(i)-(vii). We believe NAMA clearly falls within the definition of 3(1)(vi). But NAMA reads parts (i) – (vii) as a subset of (a-c).
You could say we are at loggerheads on this one. And this actually goes beyond whether NAMA is or is not a public authority under this legislation. The disagreement here is so fundamental that it affects all other types of bodies that may or may not be public authorities under the same legislation. It is of fundamental importance to how this legislation is applied in the future, and could decide on how limited, or unlimited, the definition of public authorities becomes. Dozens of bodies could be included or excluded on the basis of how this legislation is interpreted.
Here is the letter from NAMA on this case:
A reply to this letter has already been drafted (with huge, indeed massive help from a reader of the blog), and we will publish it here once submitted. Should the OCEI find against us, and find that NAMA is not a public authority, our only recourse would then be to the High Court on a point of law.
The support of our readers, particularly those legal pros among you, is of course always appreciated.