18 March 2016

Automated response by the Department of Justice hinders access to information

South Africa celebrates Human Rights Day on the 21st of March 2016, as a red letter day for the constitutional rights afforded to every South African. Under the Promotion of Access to Information Act, 2000 (PAIA) the Department of Justice (DoJ) is charged with responsibility to ensure compliance with the Act. Unfortunately the DoJ, which does not have a great track record, as SAHA as written on before,  as it is of compliance with PAIA, seems to be failing as of late to ensure that it itself is compliant even at the first instance of the request process.

In compliance with the provisions of PAIA SAHA has been submitting PAIA requests for the DoJ to the DoJ’s Deputy Information Officer, identified in the DoJ’s PAIA Manual, at the email address provided for in the manual. All requests submitted by SAHA to the DoJ have been responded to by way of an automatically generated e-mail which claims to acknowledge receipt of our communication and advises that the DoJ will respond to our request shortly. But when SAHA failed this year to receive any substantive correspondence, on a request submitted on behalf of someone who desperately needs the requested records to further his own career we learnt that the DOJ’s deputy information officer has actually been out of the office since the 18th of January 2016, with the DoJ unable to provide an indication of when she will return.

Given the particular role that the DoJ is assigned by PAIA its failure to ensure that steps are taken to make requesters aware of the fact that the information in its PAIA manual has been out of date for at least the last 2 months is especially worrisome. We find it particularly troublesome that requesters are by automated correspondence assured of receipt of and attention to their requests when what they should be receiving is notice of the alternative means for lodging their request with the department.  With very strict timelines around the submission of requests and appeals against refused requests prescribes under PAIA, this inaction on the part of the DoJ seems to demonstrate a lack of interest in ensuring access to information.

Having raised our concerns with the new contact person in the DoJ SAHA hopes that the DoJ will take this opportunity to do some introspection and put a plan in place, perhaps follow the example of some other requestee bodies and invests in a freedom of information group email that can be accessed by all members in their PAIA unit which would avoid similar future embarrassment.