A decision by the Information Commissioner, which required University College Cork (UCC) to release information on a €100 million loan agreement between the university and the European Investment Bank (EIB) has been overturned in the High Court.
The High Court’s ruling comes after UCC challenged a decision made by the Information Commissioner in 2018, which required the university to disclose information on the loan to RTE, who made a Freedom of Information (FOI) request a year earlier.
The court in this case ruled the Commissioner had wrongfully taken an approach which was described as a “presumption in favour of disclosure”. This required the university to justify its refusal to RTÉ. It was concluded that the Commissioner’s finding that the university would not be harmed by the disclosure was “unsustainable”.
The ruling has been met with disappointment and opposition, with Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty noting that it was contrary to FOI laws. He questioned whether this would protect large institutions, who may now be able to refuse public FOI requests without challenge. Speaking to the Journal.ie, he noted that “freedom of information is crucial for any functioning democracy”.
Doherty also noted that “information obtained through FOI by journalists in the past has served the public interest well in shining a light on serious social and political affairs”. He called on the Information Commissioner to lodge an appeal, and also called on Sinn Féin to introduce legislation to address the judge’s finding, should this become necessary.
Various commentators and civil liberties groups have also expressed their concern with the judgment, with journalist Gavin Sheridan, who was involved in a similar case, stating that the Freedom of Information Act is now in “serious jeopardy”. He also stated that “presumption is no longer in favour of disclosure”, and that “the act is now, and I use this word carefully, dead”.
UCC have since provided a statement from the EIB, who have called for the information to be withheld, as it was deemed commercially sensitive. UCC noted that this would “considerably compromise” the EIB in its negotiations with other universities in Ireland.
It is not yet clear whether the Information Commissioner will lodge an appeal against the finding.