The Freedom of Information Act 1988 (FOI Act) provides a right of access to documents held by Australian Government ministers and most agencies. Most freedom of information (FOI) requests involve people seeking access to documents containing their personal information. Individuals can also request access to documents containing other information, such as information about government policies, programs and decision-making processes.
The FOI Act only applies to information held in the form of a document. The definition of a ‘document’ in the FOI Act includes:
- any paper or other material on which there is writing or a mark, figure or symbol
- electronically-stored information
- maps, plans, drawings and photographs
- any article from which sounds, images or writing are capable of being produced.
Ministers and agencies are not required to create a new document containing the information that is sought.
How to request access to documents
Before making an FOI request, you should ask the minister or agency if they are willing to provide the information you want, outside of the FOI Act. This will often be faster and easier than making a formal FOI request for documents. It also does not affect your ability to later make a formal FOI request for documents containing the information.
To make a request for documents under the FOI Act, an applicant must:
- put the request in writing (an email counts as writing)
- state that it is an application under the FOI Act
- describe the document or documents sought
- provide a return address (including an email address)
- send the request to a minister or agency (either by post, personal delivery or electronically).
You don’t need to use your real name to make an FOI request. However, ministers and agencies may need to establish your identity in some circumstances. An example would be if you requested access to documents containing your personal information.
Bodies corporate (such as companies) and state governments can also make FOI requests.
More information about making an FOI request is available in FOI Fact Sheet 6 — How to apply and in the FOI Topics pages. Advice for agencies about making information available outside the FOI Act in the first instance, known as ‘administrative access’, is available in FOI Agency Resource 14 — Access to government information: administrative access schemes.
FOI disclosure log
You can gain access to information released in response to FOI requests through the online disclosure logs that agencies and ministers are required to maintain. Many agencies link to the disclosure log from their website homepage using these icons:
The disclosure log must list information in documents released in response to FOI requests within ten working days after the FOI applicant has received access. You will either be able to download the information directly or else find details about how to obtain the information.
Some information released in response to FOI access requests does not have to be published through the disclosure log:
- the personal information of any person
- information about the business, commercial, financial or professional affairs of any person
- other information determined by the Australian Information Commissioner.
Agencies can gain access to the ‘FOI Disclosure Log’ and ‘Access to information’ icons mentioned above, and to guidance about how to use them, on the FOI Agency resources page.