On July 14, 2011, the Incorporated Trustees of the Citizens Assistance Centre (Incorporated Trustees) requested information regarding government overhead costs from 1999 to September 2011. When the Lagos State House of Assembly, the state legislature, did not comply with the request, the Incorporated Trustees requested from the Court an order of mandamus compelling disclosure of the information. The Lagos State House of Assembly supplied several counter-arguments: 1) the Incorporated Trustees lacked locus standi to bring suit as they were not a registered organization and “not a juristic person”; 2) “the overhead costs sought to be published cannot be published without creating crisis in the interest of the state and its security”; 3) disclosure would cause government employees to “suffer irreparable injury and/or prejudice” and the information was thus subject to the personal information exemption in Section 14 of the FOI Act; and 4) the FOI Act could not be applied retroactively as it took effect on 28 May 2011 after the period that the requested information concerns.
The Court first dispensed with the argument that the Incorporated Trustees lacked locus standi to bring suit: “it is trite law that only juristic persons can sue or be sued.” Rather, “juristic persons” takes on a broad meaning and includes “natural persons, incorporated companies, corporations with perpetual succession and unincorporated associations granted the status of legal persons by law.”
However, the FOI Act could not be applied retroactively. The preamble to the Act “answers the [retroactivity] question succinctly,” as the preamble makes no mention of retroactivity. It would have “clearly stated” so had the Act been intended to apply retroactively. In the absence of a clear intention within the text, “an interpretation giving retrospective effect to a statute should not be readily accepted where that would affect vested rights or impose liability or disqualification for past events.”
The Court also considered the fact that the Incorporated Trustees “delayed beyond the 30 days approved by section 20 of the Act before filing the action.” Given the “extraordinary and residuary remedy” of an order of mandamus, the Incorporated Trustees’ failure to comply with the procedural guidelines was “fatal to their application” for information. The Court has the power to refuse an order of mandamus at its discretion and “will not grant the order if a specific alternative remedy which is equally convenient, beneficial and effectual is available.”
Lastly, the Court agreed with the State House of Assembly that the personal information contained within the requested information rendered it subject to the exception in Section 14 of the Act since public interest in disclosure, in this case, did not outweigh the protection of privacy. Specifically, the requested information fell under Section 14(1), which provides that a public institution “must deny an application for information that contains personal information and information exempted under the section which includes personnel files and personal information maintained with respect to employees, appointees or elected officials of any public institution or applicants for such positions.”
This summary has been adjusted from the summary drafted by Media Rights Agenda.
Summary of the Judgment of the Court.