Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Freedom of Information in Utopia

Many public servants would have tuned in to an episode of ABC's satirical comedy Utopia, in which the fictional Nation Building Authority muddles its way through an FOI request. FOI is an important part of government accountability and transparency.  The episode reminds us that responding to FOI requests can be complex.  This handy guide provides a quick reminder of the key steps to follow when processing an FOI request.  While FOI requests can be made to both agencies and Ministers, this post primarily deals with the former.

Practical assistance is also provided by the Attorney-General Guidelines on the Responsibilities and Obligations of Principal Officers and Agencies (December 2009).  Regard should also be had to the Attorney-General's Freedom of Information Professional Standards (2014).

Steps in processing an FOI request

1.      What are the criteria for a valid request?

The first step is to determine whether a request is valid under s 17 of the FOI Act.  A request will be valid if it is:

  •         in writing;
  •          provides information to enable identification of the documents; and
  •          encloses the application fee, which may be waived or reduced if it would cause hardship to the applicant.

The application fee is 2 fee units, which currently totals $27.20

If a request is not valid, the agency has a duty to assist the applicant to make a valid request or direct a request to the appropriate agency (s 17(3)).

2.      How quickly must a request be processed?

Once an agency receives a valid FOI request, all reasonable steps must be taken to notify the applicant of the decision as soon as possible and no later than 45 calendar (not business) days after the request was received (s 21).  

If you work for an agency and receive an FOI request, but you are not an FOI officer, you should forward the request to the appropriate person in your agency.  You can find out who the FOI officer is by looking in your agency's 'Part II' statement.  This is a reference to Part II of the FOI Act, which requires that certain information is published and available to the public.  As an example, the Part II statement of the Department of Justice and Regulation is available online here

3.      What if a request is voluminous?

An agency may refuse access to documents if the request is so voluminous that processing it would divert the agency's resources substantially and unreasonably from its other operations (s 25A(1)(a)).  Before refusing a request for this reason, the agency must contact the applicant and offer to assist him or her to make the request in a form that would remove this ground for refusal (s 25A(6)).

4.      How is a request processed?

Once a request is assessed as valid, a thorough and diligent search must be conducted to locate all documents within the terms of the request.  This search can be conducted by the relevant business area of an agency under the supervision of the FOI officer.

'Document' includes a document in writing, as well as maps, plans, graphs, drawings, photographs, sound tracks, film, and any words, figures, letters or symbols which have meaning (s 5).

If the search does not return any relevant documents, the agency may determine that they do not possess any documents that fall within the terms of the request.

5.      What exemptions may apply to a document?

An applicant is not entitled to a document (or a part of a document) if an exemption applies to that document (or that part of a document).  Each document must be reviewed to determine if all or any part of a document may be exempt.  If an exemption applies, consideration must be given to whether the document can be released with exempt matter redacted (s 25).

Exemptions include:
·         Cabinet documents (s 28)
·         documents containing matter communicated by the Commonwealth or any State or Territory (s 29)
·         documents affecting national security, defence or international relations (s 29A)
·         documents of Court Services Victoria (s 29B)
·         internal working documents (s 30)
·         law enforcement documents (s 31)
·         documents affecting legal professional privilege (s 32)
·         documents affecting personal privacy (s 33)
·         commercial information of a third party or where the agency is engaged in trade and commerce (s 34)
·         documents containing material obtained in confidence (s 35)
·         disclosure contrary to the public interest (s 36)
·         certain documents arising out of companies and securities legislation (s 37)
·         documents to which secrecy provisions apply (s 38)
·         Council documents (s 38A)

Many of the above exemptions contain a public interest test, which is designed to balance competing factors in favour of either providing or preventing access to documents.

6.      What decisions may an agency make in respect of a document?

After any applicable exemptions have been identified, a decision must made as to whether to:
·         exempt a document in full;
·         release a document in part (with exempt material deleted); or
·         release a document in full.

Even if a document is to be released in part or in full, an agency may defer access if the document has been prepared for presentation to Parliament or a Council or for release to the press (s 24).

Notice of the decision must be provided in writing to an applicant (s 27) and must include:
·         the findings on any material questions of fact (eg, if an exemption applies), the material on which those findings was based, and the reason for the decision;
·         the name and designation of the person making the decision;
·         whether exempt information has been deleted from a document; and
·         information about the right to seek a review of the decision, including where to seek review and the time limit for seeking review.

7.      How can an FOI decision be reviewed?

After an agency has provided notice of a decision under the FOI Act to an applicant, he or she has 28 days to apply to the Freedom of Information Commissioner for review of the that decision (ss 49A, 49B).  However, the following decisions are not reviewable by the FOI Commissioner:
·         a decision made by the Minister or the principal officer of any agency (s 49A(3));
·         a decision refusing access to a document on the basis of the exemption under s 28, namely Cabinet documents (s 49A(4)); and
·         a decision refusing access to a document on the basis of the exemption under s 29A, namely documents affecting national security, defence or international relations (s 49A(4)).

A decision of the Commissioner is in turn reviewable by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (ss 50(1)(b) and (c)).  An application to the VCAT must be made within 60 days of notice of the decision (s 52).

Applicants may also apply to VCAT for review of the following decisions:
·         a decision of the principal officer of an agency or a Minister refusing to grant access to a document in accordance with a request (s 50(1)(a));
·         a decision of an agency refusing to grant access to a document in accordance with a request, if the FOI Commissioner has made a determination under s 49G(1) not to accept an application for review or has dismissed a review (s 50(1)(d)).
·         a decision of an agency refusing to grant access to a document that is claimed to be exempt under s 28 (Cabinet documents) or s 29A (documents affecting national security, defence or international relations) (s 50(1)(e)).
·         a decision under s 24 by the principal officer of an agency or a Minister deferring the provision of access to a document (s 50(1)(f)).
·         a decision as to the amount of a charge that is required to be paid before access to a document is granted, if the FOI Commissioner has certified that the matter is one of the sufficient importance for VCAT to consider (s 50(1)(g)).

A decision of VCAT is also reviewable by the Supreme Court on an error of law.

Proposed Office of the Public Access Counsellor

The Government has also indicated its intention to create a new Office of the Public Access Counsellor, which will replace the Office of the FOI Commissioner.  The Special Minister of State has informed the Legislative Council that the Office will be established in 2016 and work has commenced to prepare the required legislation.  

The Office of the Public Access Counsellor will:
  •  have the ability to review ministerial and departmental decisions to not release documents under the Cabinet-in-Confidence exemption;
  • set FOI standards; and
  • have a broader mandate to help Victorians understand how to access government information.

VGSO's FOI experts can help Victorian government bodies to respond to FOI requests.  We can also assist with reviews of an FOI decision before the FOI Commissioner, VCAT or the Supreme Court.

Managing Principal Solicitor
8684 0450

Principal Solicitor
8684 0413