22nd August, 2016
A Federal High Court in Abuja has ordered the Nigerian Police and Inspector General of Police to disclose to Media Rights Agenda (MRA) information relating to practices and procedures for the classification of records and documents held by the Police.
Justice Nnamdi Dimgba made the order while delivering judgment in a suit filed by MRA against the Police over its refusal to provide MRA with the information requested by the non-governmental organization on February 23, 2016, pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act, 2011.
In the request for information, MRA asked, among other things, for details of internal policies, practice directives, and standing orders, regardless of what they are called, that guide the classification and declassification of information in the custody of the police as well as what the levels of classification are and who has the authority to classify information. However, the Police failed to provide the requested information.
In the suit filed on behalf of MRA by its lawyer, Mr Godwin Chigbu, against the Nigerian Police, the Inspector General of Police and Attorney General of the Federation, MRA sought the following reliefs:
A declaration that the failure of the Police and the Inspector-General of Police to furnish MRA with the information requested through its letter of February 23, 2016 amounts to a wrongful denial of information under the Freedom of Information Act, 2011; and
An order compelling the Police and the Inspector-General of Police, jointly and severally, to within seven days of the judgment in the suit, furnish MRA with the information requested.
The Police has opposed the suit, claiming that it never denied MRA the information but that there was a delay in the release of the information caused by the chain of command in the Police, which must be followed from the highest rank of Inspector General of Police to the least rank of constable.
The Attorney-General of the Federation also asked the court to strike out the suit on the grounds that MRA did not disclose any cause of action and that MRA was not a juristic person capable of suing and being sued. The Attorney-General also contended that MRA’s request to the Police was not for information but that the organization was merely asking the Inspector-General of Police to lecture it on the procedure for classifying a document.
Dismissing the Attorney-General’s objection on the ground that MRA’s application was not a request for information, Justice Dimgba held that the whole essence of the FOI Act is “to provide access to information in whatever form the information might be” to the citizenry.
He added that where the Nigerian Police wishes to deny or refuse the request for information, the reason for the refusal or denial must fall within any of the heads of exemption expressly provided for in the FOI Act.
On the Attorney-General’s contention that MRA lacked the capacity to sue, Justice Dimgba held that MRA is duly registered in accordance with the Laws of Nigeria and therefore had a right to bring the action.
He further held that MRA did not need to show or exhibit its certificate of incorporation from the Corporate Affairs Commission in order to maintain the suit, as argued by the Attorney-General.
Besides, the judge noted, the definition of a “person” who has capacity to bring an FOI action in court within the meaning of the FOI Act includes “a body of persons, whether corporate or incorporate, acting individually or as a group”.
The court also dismissed the Attorney-General’s argument that he should not have been joined as a party in the suit, noting that Section 29 of the FOI Act gives the Attorney-General a “special place” in terms of the “overall enforcement and compliance with access to public information obligations of public institutions.”
According to Justice Dimgba, “Having been given such a prime place within the legal regime, it sounds certainly counter-intuitive and perhaps, disingenuous, to say the least, that the same AGF’s office can come back to argue that it was improperly joined as a party in a suit where the principal allegation is that an agency of government is demurring from enforcing its obligation under the FOI Act.”
The judge also dismissed the claim by the Police that it did not deny MRA the information requested but merely delayed in disclosing it because of bureaucratic delays with the Police caused by the chain of command.
He stressed that the FOI Act is a “special legislation, and is one in which the liberty of action by the public institutions on which the obligations which it creates rest, is severely constrained.”
Justice Dimgba held that from the facts, it was obvious that there could be no legal justification founded on the FOI Act for an agency such as the Police to just keep silent and not respond although they got MRA’s letter on February 24, 2016.
He held that the Police and the Inspector-General breached their duty under the FOI Act by not dealing with the request that had been validly presented to them, adding that the issue of chain of command is an internal matter of the Police and “should not stand in the way of obliging an applicant with public information which the Law has already given him entitlement to.”
Justice Dimgba therefore entered judgment in favour of MRA and ordered the Police and the Inspect-General of Police to disclose the information requested by the organization.