Jamaica’s Access to Information (ATI) Act was passed in 2002 and I believe, despite some of the weaknesses which remain in its provisions, it is an extremely important and potentially powerful tool for members of the public.
The following objectives are stated in the legislation:
In addition to some problems with the legislation itself, there can be challenges to getting the requested information. Sometimes use of the Act goes smoothly; sometimes it does not. Here’s a recent and still ongoing experience of mine.
June 17, 2016
I heard a radio news report about a speech that the Minister of National Security Robert Montague had given at a function the day before, in which he had made comments about people committing crimes while on bail and the need to make changes to the Bail Act because of this.
By email, I made the following request to the Ministry of National Security (MNS) under the provisions of the ATI Act:
I would like to make an ATI request for all data, reports, memos, correspondence, minutes, etc regarding people on bail who have allegedly committed further offences while on bail.
I heard Minister Montague on a clip on the news today giving some figures at an event yesterday, which I hope would be included in the information I am requesting.
I received this response from MNS:
This is to acknowledge receipt of your Access to Information Request, which will be processed and dealt with accordingly.
I heard nothing further for two months.
August 18, 2016
I received an email from MNS:
I am hereby making the request for an extension of time to supply information regarding your requests, the request was dispatched for the attention of the respective party that would probably have such information in their possession. However, the information has not yet been provided to this office. Thank you
September 6, 2016
I sent the following response to MNS:
I note your request for an extension of time in providing the information I requested on June 17. However, given that this request was made 60 days since I made my request, I will be referring this to the Appeal Tribunal.I also note that no valid reason has been given for this delay.
September 9, 2016
I received the following from MNS:
This is to inform that your request was forwarded to the appropriate personnel/department to supply information with regards to your request. However, the information that you desire does not rest with this office and as such we do not have direct control for when the information is supplied in most instances. I regret the delay, however the information if available, will be forwarded as soon as it is obtained, thank you.
I replied to MNS:
If the information is not held by the Ministry of National Security, then my request ought to have been transferred to the relevant government ministry/agency and I should have been notified of that transfer. I haven’t been. If the information is held by the Ministry of National Security, in whichever office or section, the requirements of the ATI Act would apply.I have made a request to the ATI Tribunal for an appeal regarding the Ministry’s failure to provide the information.
October 14, 2016
Following some intervention by the ATI Unit, I received the following email from MNS with a document attached:
Please find attached the information that was requested Re: “Persons on Bail Committing Additional Offences”. Apologies are extended for the delay in the conveying of this response.
A copy of the document (Jamaica Constabulary Force – Assessment – Impact on Serious Crimes by Persons on Bail – June 28, 2016) is availble here: jcf-assessment-on-serious-crimes-by-persons-on-bail-28-06-16
I sent the following response to MNS:
Thank you for your email and the attached document.I am not satisfied, however, that this fulfills my request made on June 17, 2016 for:“all data, reports, memos, correspondence, minutes, etc regarding people on bail who have allegedly committed further offences while on bail”to which I added the following identifier:“I heard Minister Montague on a clip on the news today giving some figures at an event yesterday, which I hope would be included in the information I am requesting.”The single document provided is a JCF report dated June 28, 2016. Since this is subsequent to the date of my request and the date on which the Minister made his public statement, I must assume that further documentation resides with the Ministry of National Security.If indeed it is the Ministry’s position that it holds no other “data, reports, memos, correspondence, minutes, etc” as per my request, then I would appreciate a definitive statement of this.
October 21, 2016
I have not yet had a response from MNS to my email sent on October 14 and my request before the Appeal Tribunal remains in place.
Restricting Bail Provisions & the Document Provided by MNS
The issue of passing or amending legislation to restrict access to bail beyond existing provisions is not a new one. Among the six anti-crime bills passed in 2010 were two amendments to the Bail Act, which were subsequently challenged in court and in 2011 were ruled unconstitutional and therefore void. (Nation, Adrian v The Director of Public Prosecutions and The Attorney General of Jamaica)
The issue was again raised this year when Prime Minister Andrew Holness stated the Government’s intention to amend the Bail Act during his Budget Debate presentation in Parliament on May 24. Minister Montague made his speech on June 16 (Jamaica Observer, 17/10/16) and public discussion further intensified following Attorney General Marlene Malahoo Forte’s Sectoral Debate presentation on July 5, in which she stated
So, Mr Speaker, we are going to touch the Bail Act, again….We are going to make some radical changes. Right now, the sentiment is one of “no bail for murder, unless self defence arises on the Crown’s case and the likelihood of an acquittal is high’.
So four months after I began my ATI quest to get documents from the Ministry of National Security giving information about people on bail who have committed further offences while on bail – documents which might empirically ground the Government’s declared intention to amend the Bail Act – I have received one document, a six-page assessment by the Jamaica Constabulary Force. Only 3 of those pages deal with crimes committed by people on bail, and the information given is of a fairly cursory nature.
If this is the only document MNS has which deals with this topic, then it is frightening to think that this is what is being used to support a decision to amend the Bail Act.
If there are other documents held by MNS – or any other Ministry or public authority – then the MNS has failed in its duty to comply with the provisions of the Access to Information Act.
I await further communication from MNS or the hearing of my requested appeal before the ATI Appeal Tribunal to discover which of these two bleak possibilities is the case.