Freedom of Information (FOI) requests require journalists to be very careful with the question they ask if they want to get something useful back.
If there is a hint of ambiguity in the request you'll get a load of bland policy documents and emails back but definitely not what you were looking for.
FOIs are a useful tool for journalists but sometimes even asking the right question isn't enough. After the judges and Revenue agreed to establish a voluntary pension levy scheme last May 1st I decided to wait three weeks before sending in an FOI.
I asked for all documents to do with the establishment of the scheme and how many judges had signed up.
After four weeks the Revenue package arrived with the responses to my questions. Unfortunately the way the system works means the FOI response only covers information held up to the date the request is received. So four weeks later when the reply is issued the information is a month out-of-date.
Revenue decided they couldn't have out-of-date information on the sensitive issue of the judges' pension levy going out so its press office issued a general press release stating that 19 judges had signed up for the levy - a whole 10 greater than had volunteered to sign up when my FOI went in.
Needless to say that buggered any chance of an exclusive on the figures from the FOI. The Revenue documents did reveal exactly how much the judges are required to pay along with some other interesting detail.
I didn't know judges are exempt from making PRSI payments for instance.
Thanks to a request from the Chief Justice the voluntary system includes a "reminder" for those judges who forget to pay up.
One email shows a High Court judge, despite the apparent apathy from his colleagues, decided to hand over a lump sum of €10,620.61 (a year's worth of levy) just over a week after the system was established. (Although he managed to underpay by 1 cent!)
Another email from a Supreme Court judge shows even the highest judges in the land don't understand the Irish tax system. The judge sent an email saying Revenue's "ready reckoner" figures were all wrong. Except they weren't.
Let's hope that judge doesn't have too many cases on tax law to adjudicate on.