Making a Freedom of Information Request

Why would I make a FOI Request?

Freedom of Information laws allow people to request information from most government agencies and government ministers.

These laws can assist citizens in understanding the decisions that have been made by government on their behalf, including decisions that may affect them personally.

While government agencies are usually required to take an open and cooperative approach to requests for information under freedom of information laws, not all documents produced by them are required to be handed over. There are a number of exemptions that apply.

There are also separate rules that apply to Commonwealth and State government agencies, so it is important to make sure that the correct application is made.

Who Can Make an FOI Request?

Every person has a right to request access to documents under the Commonwealth FOI law and the Victorian FOI law. This includes companies and other organisations. You do not have to be an Australian citizen or even be in Australia to make a request.

What Information Can I Request?

The definition of a ‘document’ is very broad. It can include written material, a map, plan, drawing or photograph, sound recordings, electronic data and information, amongst other things.

Exemptions

It is important to be aware that there are a number of exemptions which may impact your ability to access certain documents. Some examples of exempt documents include, cabinet documents, documents that may affect national security, defence or international relations, documents that could affect legal proceedings, documents whose release would be contrary to the public interest, or documents that may infringe another person’s privacy, intellectual property or confidentiality if they were released. There are numerous other examples.

How to Make an FOI Request:

An application should be made to the government agency or department that you consider is likely to hold the documents you are looking for. Most government agencies will have information on their website will provide some basic information the process that applies.

You are not required to give reasons for your request, however, when making a request you must:

  • Make the request in writing (again, many agencies have forms on their websites)
  • State that it is an application for the purposes of the Freedom of Information Act
  • Provide Information about the document(s) you want, to help the agency or minister identify the documents;
  • Provide contact details so that notices can be sent to you (this can include an email address)
  • Send your request to the agency or minister by either posting it or delivering it to the address specified in the telephone directory, or sending to the relevant email or fax address.

You are entitled to request access to documents in a particular form, for example in an electronic format rather than a photocopy.

You should try to be tailored and exact in your request. If you request categories of documents that are too broad, the agency may refuse to comply with your request on the basis that answering your request would unreasonably interfere with their usual work.

Some fees may apply to FOI requests. You may also be charged by the agency for processing your request (for example copying fees). The agency will tell you if fees apply to your request.

What is Required of the Minister or Agency?

The agency is required to take reasonable steps to help you complete your request.  They are obliged to keep you informed throughout the process, complying with set timeframes and giving you an opportunity to respond where appropriate.

Can my Request for Information be Refused?

Your request can be refused if the agency or minister cannot identify the documents that would meet your request. A decision to refuse the request must be given in writing and the reasons for refusal must be provided.

If your request is refused, you can seek a review of this decision. Under Victorian law, you may apply to the Victorian Freedom of Information Commissioner for review within 28 days of the refusal.  If you are still not satisfied with the Commissioner’s decision, you can apply to VCAT for review. Under Commonwealth law, you can apply to the Australian Information Commissioner for review. If you are not satisfied with the Commissioner’s decision, you can appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT).

If you need any legal advice regarding a Freedom of Information matter, please contact us at our Melbourne office on (03) 9603 3000 an done of our lawyers experienced in this area will be happy to assist you.