28 September 2011

PAIA Civil Society Network releases shadow report

The PAIA Civil Society Network (CSN) recently released its annual shadow report to complement the work of the South African Human Rights Commission in monitoring and implementing PAIA. The report reflects the experiences of the CSN's member organisations in using PAIA during the 12 month period beginning in August 2010. 

The past 12 months have seen a significant increase in the number of requests for information as compared to the previous year. Unfortunately, information holders have failed to meet this boost with an increase in the implementation of the Act. Instead, these parties have rendered a substantial number of the requests futile by failing to respond. In fact, approximately 75% of the requests that were unsuccessful garnered no response from the relevant information holders, resulting in their being treated as deemed refusals. A similar trend can be observed in terms of the treatment of internal appeals to refused requests. In those instances, the information holders also failed to respond approximately 75% of the time.

In response to the vast number of requests being ignored, the report recommends an increase in the training of information officers, as well as an increased allocation of resources toward effective implementation of the Act. The training is warranted in order to enhance information officers' understanding of their legal obligations under the Act and to facilitate the free flow of information. Greater resources must be attributed to the Human Rights Commission and to civil society organisations if this training is to be undertaken, and the enhanced protection of the right to information is to be achieved. Additionally, information holders must allocate increased resources, within their organisation, to the implementation of PAIA. Specifically, these resources should be directed toward effective record-keeping systems and the engagement of sufficient staff to manage the requests that are received, according to the report.

A further recommendation of the report is to introduce an information commissioner, or similar body, that would act as an independent, inexpensive and expedient avenue for appeals to refusals. This proposal would serve to improve access to information by ordinary citizens and civil society organisations. The prohibitive cost of litigating access to information claims in the courts is an obstacle that stands in the way of these groups. This is particularly problematic where information is sought from private bodies where there is no recourse to an internal review mechanism. Moreover, with so many requests for information being ignored, it is difficult for organisations to assess whether litigation is appropriate. This is owing to the uncertainty that surrounds the grounds for deemed refusals where the request is ignored as well as the possibility that the information being requested is not in possession of the party being asked to produce the information. The creation of an information commissioner would help to alleviate these problems by increasing the access to information of ordinary citizens and civil society organisations in situations where such access has been unfairly denied.

A copy of the report is available here.