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Volume 13 Number 1
New Delhi, Spring 2006
Newsletter   

Reviewing the Access to Information Act in Jamaica

Carolyn Gomes
Executive Director, Jamaicans for Justice

On 11 January, the Joint Select Committee of Jamaicaís Parliament held its first meeting to review the national 2002 Access to Information Act as mandated by the law. This Committee is expected to conclude its review by the end of March.

Over the last two years, Jamaicans for Justice (www.jamaicansforjustice.org) has been working to encourage the use of the 2002 Access to Information Act by the general public, NGOs, civil society groups and community-based organisations. We have also been monitoring responses to requests. These activities have led to the creation of a formal Consortium of Access to Information Users. We have also uncovered a number of areas where the Act needs clarification, strengthening or amending to make it a more effective tool for bolstering transparency in governance. These issues will be included in the Consortium of Access to Information Usersí submissions to the Joint Select Committee of Parliament.

Understaffing at the ATI Unit

Most significantly, the resignation of the Executive Officer and Public Relations Officer of the Access to Information (ATI) Unit, leaving the Unit with a staff complement of one Administrative Officer, has been a severe blow to the smooth implementation and monitoring of the Act. The Governmentís failure to fill these positions has further handicapped the Unitís operations. As a consequence, public officers charged with administering the Act have no dedicated unit to go to for advice, especially in terms of interpreting the Act, outside the Attorney Generalís department. In turn, this has resulted in officers responding to requests where it is not clear what information is being requested by stating that the document does not exist or by simply not answering at all. Meanwhile, points of clarification and interpretation have remained unresolved. Performance monitoring has also suffered from the lack of staff at the ATI Unit, meaning that implementation of the Act among Public Authorities has been extremely inconsistent.

With the dysfunction of the ATI Unit, the public has been left with no official recourse to resolve simple problems such as lack of knowledge of Government Access Officers, bureaucratic obstacles to assessing information (such as delays in the processing of requests), and uncertainty of who to address with complaints concerning poor service or inappropriate conduct of access officers. These problems underline the need to include provisions mandating the establishment, maintenance and functions of a dedicated monitoring and implementation agency.

Which Government Bodies are Covered by the Act?

Another issue that will be the subject of submissions to the Parliamentary Review Committee is the need to clarify the exact jurisdiction of the Act. In particular, it is not clear whether the Act applies to certain government and quasi-government bodies such as:

  • the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions;
  • Statutory bodies; and
  • Commissions and Committees such as the Police Service Commission, the Public Service Commission and the Scientific Research Council.

Weak Appeals Mechanism

There have also been problems concerning the composition and functioning of the Appeals Tribunal, which to date has only managed to sit on two days to hear three appeals. The Tribunal lacks full-time staff members and a dedicated secretariat. The Consortium also hopes to raise problems with the Tribunalís regulations with the Parliamentary Committee.

The Committee must also clarify a range of other issues in order to ensure the effective implementation of the Act. These include clarifying:

  • the definition of the term ďdocumentĒ;
  • the exact duties of Access Officers to collate information from more than one document in order to meet a request;
  • how to prevent the commonplace practice of officers signing a decision on the right to an Internal Review of a rejected request on behalf of the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry;
  • when a request has been transferred to another agency, whether an applicant can appeal to the transferring agency if he/she is convinced that the relevant information resides there; and
  • when the clock starts ticking on a request - is it when it is delivered to the relevant public authority, or is it when it is delivered to the Access Officer (which may be as much as a week to ten days later)?

The Committee must also ensure that Ministries and Agencies provide reasons for requesting a time extension to meet a request. Finally, the Committee must carry out the long promised repeal of the Official Secrets Act. Indeed, this will be critical in determining the long-term success of the Act.

Conduct of the Review

One disappointing development in the lead up to the review has been the lack of any notification of interested parties about the appointment of the Parliamentary Committee and its scheduled first sitting on 11 January. As a result, no member of the Consortium, Jamaicans for Justice, or the ATI Advisory Stakeholders Committee was able to attend the first sitting.

At that meeting, the Committee set out the main issues that it intended to address. These included public education about the Act, the period of time allowed for response to applications, overload caused by voluminous requests, protection of advice given in the form of documents, costs of providing the services efficiently and the continuing use of the Official Secrets Act. Information Minister, Burchell Whiteman, revealed that the Committee would invite submissions from particular groups, including the Advisory Committee of Stakeholders (a coalition of NGOs) and the Association of ATI Administrators, as well as calling for submissions from the general public.

It is hoped that vigorous civil society and user participation will ensure the Committee properly addresses the problems arising from the Act’s implementation. However, the Government of Jamaica must also not retreat from its commitment to accountability, transparency and public participation in national decision-making, which are the key objectives of the Access to Information Act 2002.

CHRI Staff Wins Nani Palkhiwala Award for Defending Civil Rights

On 16 January 2006, Navaz Kotwal was given the prestigious Nani A. Palkhiwala Award for the defense and preservation of civil rights in the individual category. The inaugural ceremony, attended by over 500 people, took place in Mumbai.

The Nani A Palkhivala Memorial Trust and Award was formed in 2005 and is named after an eminent jurist and constitutional expert who passed away in 2002. The Judges in the panel were Hon’ble Justice Venkatachelliah and Hon’ble Justice Sam Bharucha (both former Chiefs of Justice, India) and Ms Anu Aga. The award carries a prize of Rs 1 lakh and a citation for the preservation and defense of civil rights.

Navaz was given the award for her three years of tireless work in Gujarat, securing justice for the victims of the communal clash that engulfed the state following an incident on a train in Godhra in 2002. Despite overwhelming challenges, she has assisted the victims in their pursuit of justice, which so far has led to 5 convictions for crimes committed during the 2002 riots. While supporting the victims, Navaz’s work also involves building bridges between the divided communities by organising legal literacy trainings, monthly newsletters being brought out by the communities, and cricket matches.

Navaz started her career with a B.Sc. in Microbiology from Jaihind College in Mumbai. She joined CHRI in 2001 and following the Gujarat riots, devoted herself to ensuring justice was upheld in the affected communities.

At the ceremony, Navaz’s father accepted the prize on her behalf, as she is currently studying in the United Kingdom, having received a three-month human rights fellowship. Navaz’s aunt acknowledged the efforts of the Gujarat team and the contributions of CHRI and read a speech written by Navaz, which emphasised the need to protect human rights defenders and acknowledge that human rights defenders are assisting the state and should be treated as such.

 
CHRI Newsletter, Spring 2006


Editors: Mary Rendell & Clare Doube , CHRI;
Layout:
Print: Chenthil Paramasivam ,
Web Developer: Swayam Mohanty, CHRI.
Acknowledgement: Many thanks to all contributors

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