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The Right of Access to Public Information Law of 2017 (184(I)/2017) (the Law) has entered into force on the 22nd of December 2020
On the 20th of November 2020, the Commissioner of Information, who is also the Commissioner for Personal Data Protection (the Commissioner), announced that the Law is entering into force on the 22nd of December 2020 (the announcement).
According to the announcement, the main purpose of the Law is to strengthen the principles of transparency and accountability in the public sector. The announcement also provides that the Law establishes the rights of citizens to request and receive, under certain conditions, information held by public authorities, with the aim of controlling the behaviour of public bodies. Furthermore, it is clarified that the Law establishes a Commissioner of Information who will be the respective Commissioner for Personal Data Protection.
Through the announcement, the Commissioner declares that since September 2018 her Office has been sharing with the public authorities guidelines for the preparation of the Publication Plan and organized relevant online training sessions to the officers of the public authorities to assist public authorities to prepare for the implementation of the Law.
The Commissioner hopes that the Law will be a tool in the hands of the citizens and society for access to information in equal terms.
The Law provides that any natural or legal person has the right to apply to access information held by a public authority but clarifies that this right does not apply if the application concerns personal data. Furthermore, it is clarified that right of access is not applicable if:
· the disclosure of information is regulated by a specific legislation; or
· if it is inconsistent with obligations imposed by the European Union; or
· if it would constitute or would be punishable as contempt of court.
It is noted that, according to the Law, the person that makes an application shall have the right to be informed in relation to whether the public authority possesses such information and if so, to receive this information if accessible.
The abovementioned application shall be in writing and shall have the following characteristics:
a. name of the applicant;
b. address of the applicant;
c. description of the information requested to be accessed.
Furthermore, the applicant may include in the application her preference for one or more of the following ways of receiving the requested information:
a. a copy of the information in hard copy or in any other form acceptable to the applicant;
b. providing the applicant a reasonable opportunity to access the file containing the requested information; or
c. a summary of information in hard copy form or in any other form acceptable to the applicant.
According to the Law, a public authority to which a request for the provision of information is made may inform the applicant in writing the amount of fees payable to satisfy her request, which shall be set out in regulations or a special law. It is clarified however that there is no such regulation published yet.
The public authorities shall be aware of the fact that, according to the Law, they shall process the requests to access information within thirty (30) days from the day of the receipt of the request, unless any regulation provides for a longer period or unless an exception of the Law applies, and in that instance the public authority shall provide the requested information within reasonable time.
Public authorities may reject any application for the provision of information if any of the following exceptions apply. The information to which access is requested:
a) is reasonably accessible to the applicant by other means;
b) amounts to information held by a public authority for the purpose of their publication;
c) is related to or provided by security forces and held by a public authority;
d) affects security;
e) may cause detriment;
i. to the defence of the Republic of Cyprus (the Republic) if published; or
ii. to the effectiveness or security of armed forces of the Republic; or
iii. to the relationship of the Republic with other states or international organisations or international courts; or
iv. to the interests of the Republic abroad; or
v. to the promotion or protection of its interests abroad; or
vi. its financial interests;
vii. to the smooth exercise of the responsibilities of the Parliament;
viii. to the health or safety of any person;
f) have been collected in the context of investigations and procedures conducted by public authorities or in the exercise of executive powers enriched by law;
g) are included in court records;
h) are used in the context of control of accounts by public authorities or examinations of economy, efficiency and effectiveness;
i) are related with ministerial communication or the provision of advice by the Attorney General;
j) has been provided subject to confidentiality.
The specific duties of the Commissioner of Information are listed in Article 37 of the Law. It is noted that applicants retain the right to complain to the Commissioner of Information if they have the view that specific provisions of the Law have been violated by the public authority.
The Law is a welcomed development for all natural and legal persons because it establishes right to access information retained by public authorities. Public authorities shall be very careful when dealing with requests of accessing information and shall consider, amongst others, whether the Law is applicable, the timeframes of the Law, as well as the applicable exceptions to the Law.