The High Court of Edo State has held that the failure of the Nigeria Correction Service to release the name, sex, country of origin, date of birth, offence, date of arrest, date of prison detention and case status of foreign detainees in their custody is illegal, unlawful, oppressive and vexatious.
In the case of Freedom of Information (FOI) Counsel v. Comptroller General of Nigeria Correction Service in (Suit No: B/63/os/2019), the applicant filed a leading civic group involved in FOI litigation support, advocacy, research and training commenced the action in 2019 after a letter was sent to the organization for records of foreign detainees in the custody of the organization but the organization refused to respond to the request. The applicant through its counsel President Aigbokan, Esq sought an order of court for the Service to release the aforementioned records or information. Mr. A.G Salihu, Esq of the Nigeria Correction Service argued that the information sought for is a breach privacy right of a third party, national security and foreign affairs. He argued further that the information sought for is foreclosed on these grounds.
The court on its part refused to consider the exemptions relied on by the Service on the ground that the exemption ought to be raised first in a written notice made to the applicant. Hon. Justice Emmanuel Ahamioje held that “Freedom of Information Act 2011 provides that Respondent must respond to the request for information made to it stating the reasons for refusal or denial within a specified period. And that where the respondent fails to supply the required inform the applicant of the refusal in a written notice, it cannot so do before the court of law for the first time”.
The court added that for government to show that its denial falls within the statutory exemption, it must first inform the applicant in writing and failure to disclose the reason for denial in form of a letter is an outright abandonment of statutory exemption even where pleaded. Failure of which the court proceed to declare that the refusal to disclose the information is null and void. The court relied on the dictum of Justice A. M. Liman in PRESIDENT AIGBOKHAN & 28 ORS v. NIGER DELTA DEVELOPMENT COMMISSION & 3 ORS (SUIT NO: FHC/B/CS/21/2015)
During a briefing after the case, President Aigbokhan, Esq thanked the court for maintaining a pure stream of FOI jurisprudence and dedicated the victory to International Day for Universal Access to Information which is marked 28th day of September every year.
He stated that this initiative of gathering the records of foreign detainees in Nigeria is to compliment prison decongestion policy of federal government.
He emphasized that “the theme of this year Access to Information Day is “Saving Lives, Building Trust, Binging Hope” and that the case of today under review satisfies the theme of the year. He added that when government policies are theoretically applied and implemented by state and non-state actors, it no doubt build trust, saves lives and justify hope. He emphasized that the case focusses on the right to information in times of global crisis of migration, prison congestion and covid19 pandemic.
President Aigbokhan, Esq added that the intervention will go a long way in decongesting Correction Centers. The advantage of having court enforce this constitutional and statutory right of public access to information can be measured with the deliverables of life saved, trust earned and sustainable policies formulated and implemented. He called for support for FOIA litigation at times like this.
He concluded by saying that time has proven that for now, there is no right to information save through the court room. It is not the ideal of the law but for now we have to live with it as a major tool in implementing the law. The court awarded the applicant the sum of Fifty Thousand Naira Only as cost of the action.