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« The operative word | Main | Breaking Laws »

Breaking the Banks

By Steven | October 17, 2012

We’ve now seen John Banks’ attempt to convince the police not to release (under the Official Information Act) information about him from their investigation into his alleged breaches of electoral law. His lawyer makes some very interesting arguments. Release would trigger “irresponsible commentary” from Banks’ “political adversaries”. It would “bring the criminal justice system into disrepute”. And:

the release of information from the investigation file would no doubt allow political adversaries of Mr Banks and media commentators alike to pore over such material and selectively highlight matters considered politically advantageous [or] ‘newsworthy’.

Marvelous. Possibly accurate, even. But there is one problem. This reasoning has nothing to do with the Official Information Act. None of these arguments constitute grounds for withholding information under the OIA. Worse than that, they run directly contrary to the principles that underscore that Act, and that have repeatedly been emphasised by the Ombudsmen. As the Danks Committee said when recommending the creation of the OIA:

The fact that the release of certain information may give rise to criticism or embarrassment of the government is not an adequate reason for withholding it from the public.

That applies equally to criticism the person happens to think might be unfounded.

In the event, the police released information but redacted big chunks of it relating to Banks and his staff and donors. Some of those deletions seem questionable. As Andrew Geddis has cogently pointed out, for example, how can privacy be invoked to protect the identity of a donor whose name the police concluded was required by law to be revealed?

The police withheld some information on grounds of privacy, confidentiality and legal professional privilege. They properly balanced these interests against the public interest in disclosure of information, and accepted that there is a high public interest. It also seems that they consulted the Ombudsmen before making the release decision.

Now, it’s not clear what, if any, influence Banks’ lawyer’s arguments had. (To be fair, I haven’t seen the full context of the arguments, so some might have been more on point). But we can only hope that the passages quoted above carried no water at all. If they did, then I’d expect the officials from the Ombudsmen’s office who are reviewing the release decision will give them short shrift.

Topics: Official Information Act |

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