In my last blog i wrote about transparency in public administration on all levels. Today I will write about transparency in peoples cases against public administrations and their access to documents and files that the authorities have produced in a case. Such laws contains provisions of transparency and also provisions to prevent unauthorized release of personal records.
This can be all kind of civil cases and permissions you would like to have from the authorities. In criminal cases there are other rules and you will have a lawyer to help and defend you. A lawyer or attorney are able to take care of all things I will talk about in this article. Attorneys are expensive, but in criminal cases you will often have right for free legal aid. That will be a theme in a later blog.
Now I will talk about civil cases with the public authorities and citizens right for access in documents and files in their own case. Many countries in the world have rules for right of access to relevant documents in such cases. I will in this article concentrate on such rules in the United States. It is a very current topic in the United States for the moment. It is a part of citizens freedom of speech and transparency in the public that I talked about in my last blog. It is a law called Privacy act that contains rules and regulations for public authorities handling with civil cases and issues and the citizens right for transparency when they are in contact with the public authorities in different ways
I do not know if the citizens are aware of their right to see how the authorities handle their case. People that afford to buy help from lawyers will have much better possibilities to get impact on the authorities handling of the case than people that cannot afford this. The consequence of this can be that resourceful people will get a better treatment than people without resources.
In this article I will give you advice how you without buying lawyers can claim access to files and documents in your own case towards public authorities.
Privacy act of 1974.
The main message in this law is that no agency or public authority shall disclose any document about individuals and their cases with or towards an agency or a public authority. The person that own the case shall have access to any document or record in the case if it is requested for it.
I have already mentioned that the law also contains provisions to prevent unauthorized release of personal records. It is some exceptions from this. Examples of such exceptions that allows use of personal records are: Information for statistical purposes, law enforcement purposes, congressional investigations.
Now I would like to concentrate the further information about the law of individuals right for access to records. It is expressed like this in a part of the law, §552:
2. Public information; agency rules, opinions, orders, records, and proceedings.
(a) Each agency shall make available to the public information as follows:
(1) Each agency shall separately state and currently publish in the Federal Register for the guidance of the public—
(A) descriptions of its central and field organization and the established places at which, the employees (and in the case of a uniformed service, the members) from whom, and the methods whereby, the public may obtain information, make submittals or requests, or obtain decisions;
(B) statements of the general course and method by which its functions are channeled and determined, including the nature and requirements of all formal and informal procedures available;
(C) rules of procedure, descriptions of forms available or the places at which forms may be obtained, and instructions as to the scope and contents of all papers, reports, or examinations;
(D) substantive rules of general applicability adopted as authorized by law, and statements of general policy or interpretations of general applicability formulated and adopted by the agency; and
(E) each amendment, revision, or repeal of the foregoing.
The text is only a small part of the law and look complicated to understand, but the agencies and authorities are entitled to give you information about their documents and files in your case and you shall have access to their records about your own case. The exceptions from this have I described earlier. The text in the law means that each agency that handles your case shall upon request by any individual give him access the information that are requested related to his own case. He can also have a person to accompany him. If another person shall represent you, you have to give him a written permission to do so. You have a legal right to see the documents and have a copy of them. They shall be presented for you in a comprehensible way. You are also permitted to have access to amended documents regarding your case.
The law also permit you to request amendments in documents pertaining to you if you mean something is wrong in the document. The agency is obligated to give you an answer within 10 day after the receipt of your request. Saturdays and Sundays not included. The agency is then obligated to make a correction in the documents according to your statement or they can refuse it. They have to inform you about the refusal and the reason to their decision.
You have possibility to complain if you disagree to the refusal of your request of an amendment of a document. The agency have to handle with your complain within 30 days and give you a reply and a justified answer if they still refuse your request. The head of the agency have the possibility to extend this period if it is needed to handle the request. You are permitted to give more information in that extended period. After the end of the 30 days or an extended 30 days period and if the agency maintain their decision, you have your right to file with the agency a statement setting forth the reasons for your disagreement.
I have in this article given you a summary of your rights to see documents that the agencies and authorities have in their possession when they are handling cases that you have brought to them of different reasons. I have also shown that it is provisions that shall keep your documents and personal information away from the public and other agencies with some extensions.
In this period of time with much fear and suspiciousness towards the authorities it is a good thing to say that there is a law that takes care of the individuals rights for information from them. The problem and the challenge is that the citizens are not sufficient aware of this possibility for information and also the possibility to have impact in their cases against agencies and other authorities.
I will encourage people to use their right to get access to documents and files in their own cases towards the public authorities. I will also encourage people to read about this topic on the net and there is also much information about the law Privacy act and information about federal governments handling with cases regarding to the citizens.
Finally I would like to say that I could have concentrated this article around the paragraphs in the law, but I have chosen to write this article without all that complicated law writing so you can get a summit of the content of the law and how it gives you the right for information in your daily life.