The Freedom of Information Act (FOI Act) is a vital piece of legislation, affecting both individuals and business alike. The most recent large-scale changes to Australia’s privacy laws came in 2010 with the federal government’s amendments to the FOI Act. These amendments had the purpose of promoting more openness in government. Understanding these developments and the current state of FOI law is critical to each and every citizen as well as your business.
Here are the 5 key things you need to know about the Freedom of Information Act.
1. What is the Freedom of Information Act?
Under the FOI Act individuals have a legally enforceable right to access government documents. Government agencies have the responsibility to disclose information upon request.
With the 2010 amendments the Federal Government aimed to promote a push rather than pull approach to FOI with a focus on innovation and research through sharing government information with businesses and the community as a whole.
This has led to new methods of disseminating government data to the public. There is now a requirement that the public service publish government information in a way that is accessible and easy to understand.
2. What information can be accessed under the Freedom of Information Act?
As government documents are available for disclosure the particular class or type of documents that you wish to seek will vary depending on your needs. The majority of requests concern individuals seeking access to their own public files.
However, accessible information does not stop at personal files. If you are in business it is worth seeking out information held by the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science.
Access to government documents from the above agency will aid your business in keeping up with innovative developments in industry. Examples of other information include ASIO documents and audit office documents.
Importantly, you do not require a special interest or reason to access these documents and companies, as recognised legal persons, can request information in the same way as individuals.
3. Where and how can you access information?
One website you should consider when pursuing information is data.gov.au. This website provides easy access to published government information and allows you to reuse this information when necessary.
The FOI act creates a legal right to not only access government information but also to request information.
When requesting information under the FOI Act, it is worth noting that:A request must be in writing;
- A written request can be made over email;
- You must provide an adequate description of the request;
- The description must be clear enough for the government agency or minister to identify the substance of the request; and
- There are no application fees for making a request or challenging a denial to the Australian Information Commissioner.
4. What are the government’s obligations when responding to your request?
Aside from the requirement of disclosure, the government has further obligations to ensure efficacy when disclosing government information. It is worth understanding requirements of government agencies and ministers to ensure that your request is not made in vain.
Central to the efficacy of FOI claims is the promptness of government response. This is provided for in the FOI act in the following ways:
- Requests must be acknowledged within 14 days;
- Requests must be responded to within 30 days;
- Failure of a government agency or minister to reply cannot result in additional fees; and
- Reasons for denial of disclosure must be given and justified
5. What Information is exempt from government disclosure?
Whilst a broad range of information is available for access and request under the FOI act, some exemptions remain. Most importantly, for businesses you will not be able to get your hands on trade secrets or commercially valuable information, unless it is in the public interest to do so.
Other exemptions include information that is vital to the security of Australia and exemptions to uphold other recognised legal interests of a person.
As the FOI act is the key area of law that guides government accountability it is undoubtedly worth getting your head around, not only for personal reasons but also to be sure that you and your business keep up to date with developments in your field.
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