PETER Robinson and Martin McGuinness’s Stormont department has backed down on the eve of unprecedented legal action after it ignored a Freedom of Information request for almost a year.
Hours before an application for Judicial Review was to be heard in Belfast’s High Court yesterday this morning, the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) released documents which it has refused to hand over for more than 300 days.
Retired civil servant Jeffrey Dudgeon, who is chairman of the UUP’s South Belfast constituency association, represented himself at yesterday’s hearing and told the court that the decision to email him documents outside normal business hours on Wednesday night was “somewhat high-handed” and “contemptuous”, given how far it was outside the legal 20-day limit for responding to FoI requests.
Mr Dudgeon had requested details of the decision to exempt Roman Catholic schools from fair employment legislation but, despite repeated enquiries to OFMDFM over many months, there was no response.
Speaking outside the court, Mr Dudgeon — whose European court challenge three decades ago led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland — vowed to campaign against the province’s sole remaining exemption (since the end of PSNI 50:50 recruitment) from fair employment legislation.
A barrister for OFMDFM told the court that the release of the final documents on Wednesday night had “effectively resolved all the matters before the court”.
Counsel for OFMDFM also said that there had “already been an apology to Mr Dudgeon” and said that the delay in releasing the final documents was explained by the “substantial” work required by officials in deciding whether they should be released.
After Mr Dudgeon applied for costs, Mr Justice Treacy was told by OFMDFM’s legal representative that the department had offered to pay Mr Dudgeon’s court fee of £200.
The judge did not make any order on costs, saying that he could do so at a later point if agreement could not be reached between the two parties, but that he hoped such a ruling would not be required.
However, outside the court, Mr Dudgeon said that he had asked for £360 to compensate him as a litigant in person and that the department was “considering” paying the fee.
He said: “Their action is high handed and quite contemptuous, leaving it until the last minute before yielding up the documents.
“This was 300 days after the FoI legal limit of 20 days and over a month since I applied for judicial review. That is 15 times longer than the law requires.
“This FoI request was the prequel to a developing campaign to ensure fair employment law is applied in Northern Ireland, without exception, and that the Executive at the very least implements the Equality Commission’s report of 2004 which recommended the exemption’s abolition in secondary schools.
“Teachers should be able to work within any school here, regardless of their religion.”