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Chapter Eight — Agency freedom of information

Overview

This chapter has been prepared using data collected from ministers and agencies subject to the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (FOI Act). Ministers and agencies are required to provide, among other details, information about:

  • the number of freedom of information (FOI) requests made to them
  • the number of decisions they made granting, partially granting or refusing access, and the number and outcome of applications for internal review
  • the number and outcome of requests to them to amend personal records
  • charges collected by them.

The Attorney-General's Department maintains a web-based system for the electronic lodgement of FOI statistical information by agencies. It collects information about agencies' use of exemptions, practical refusal processes, and staff resources and other costs associated with compliance with Information Publication Scheme (IPS) provisions.

The data given by ministers and agencies for the preparation of this annual report is published on the OAIC website.

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Requests for access to documents

Types of FOI requests

The term 'FOI request' means a request for access to documents under s 15 of the FOI Act. Applications for amendment or annotation of personal records under s 48 are dealt with separately below.

The FOI Act requires that agencies and ministers provide access to documents in response to requests that meet the requirements of s 15 of the FOI Act. The figures in this report do not take account of applications that did not satisfy those requirements.

Numbers of FOI requests received

Table 8.1 provides a comparison of the number of FOI requests received in each of the last five reporting years. Chart 8.2 (see later in this chapter) shows the total number of FOI requests received each year since the commencement of the FOI Act in 1982.

Table 8.1 Total FOI requests received 2010–11 to 2014–15
2010–11
2011–12
2012–13
2013–14
2014–15
23,605
24,764
24,944
28,463
35,550

Following the FOI reforms that commenced in November 2010, FOI request numbers have steadily increased. The rate of increase in 2014–15 was the highest since the 2010 reforms. Australian Government agencies received 35,550 FOI requests in 2014–15, up 24.9% on the number received in the previous year. Request numbers increased 4.9% in 2011–12, 0.7% in 2012–13 and 14.1% in 2013–14.

Number of FOI requests received by different agencies

In 2014–15, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP), the Department of Human Services (DHS) and the Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA) continued to receive the majority of FOI requests (75.4% of the total). The bulk of requests to these agencies are from customers or clients seeking access to documents containing their own personal information or case file information.

The 20 agencies that received the largest number of requests in 2014–15 are shown in Table 8.2, with a comparison to the number of requests each received in 2013–14. The top five agencies in 2014–15 were DIBP, DHS, DVA, Migration Review Tribunal (MRT) and Australian Taxation Office (ATO). These agencies were also the top five in 2013–14 and 2012–13, although ATO received the fourth-highest proportion of requests in 2013–14 but only the fifth-highest in 2014–15, switching places with MRT.

DIBP had the largest increase in request numbers in 2014–15 (up by 6997 or 59%), and its proportion of the total number of requests received by Australian Government agencies increased from 41.6% in 2013–14 to 53% in 2014–15. DIBP recorded a 64.2% increase in requests for personal information. DIBP experienced a significant increase in protection visa applicants seeking documents under FOI due to the progressive and ongoing lifting of visa application bars.

The MRT and ATO both experienced increases in the number of requests received (up 347 and 231 respectively), and in their proportions of the total number of requests received by Australian Government agencies. DHS received only 64 more requests in 2014–15 (an increase of 1.4% from 2013–14), and DVA had 245 fewer requests (a reduction of 6.7% from 2013–14).

As noted above, the total number of FOI requests received increased by 24.9% in 2014–15. Collectively, the 20 agencies that received the most FOI requests in 2014–15 reported an increase from the 20 agencies that received the most FOI requests in 2013–14 (93.6% of total requests in 2014–15, compared to 90.4% in 2013–14).

Table 8.2 Agencies by numbers of FOI requests received
Agency
Rank 2013–14
Total 2013–14
% of all FOI requests
Rank 2014–15
Total 2014–15
% of all FOI requests
Change Total
Department of Immigration and Border Protection
1
11,854
41.6
1
18,851
53.0
+6997
Department of Human Services
2
4437
15.6
2
4501
12.7
+64
Department of Veterans' Affairs
3
3681
12.9
3
3436
9.7
-245
Migration Review Tribunal
5
715
2.5
4
1062
3.0
+347
Australian Taxation Office
4
768
2.7
5
999
2.8
+231
Refugee Review Tribunal
6
633
2.2
6
766
2.2
+133
Australian Federal Police
7
485
1.7
7
505
1.4
+20
Department of Defence
8
433
1.5
8
409
1.2
-24
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
10
281
1.0
9
331
0.9
+50
Department of Health
9
314
1.1
10
323
0.9
+9
Attorney-General's Department
12
263
0.9
11
259
0.7
-4
Australian Securities and Investments Commission
13
237
0.8
12
254
0.7
+17
Australian Postal Corporation
17
207
0.7
13
244
0.7
+37
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
16
209
0.7
14
241
0.7
+32
Australian Customs and Border Protection Service
15
218
0.8
15
213
0.6
-5
Department of the Treasury
18
191
0.7
16
212
0.6
+21
Department of Social Services[*]
17
194
0.5
+194
Department of Employment
19
157
0.6
18
182
0.5
+25
Trade Marks Office
11
279
1.0
19
165
0.5
-114
Department of Finance
14
223
0.8
20
138
0.4
-85
Total top 20
25,729[^]
90.4[^]
33,285
93.6
+7556
Remaining agencies
2734
9.6
2265
6.4
-469
Total
28,463
100.0
35,550
100.0
+7087

[*] Denotes an agency not listed in the top 20 agencies in 2013–14.

[^] Shows the total for the top 20 agencies in 2013–14 (ie includes figures for one agency that is not in the top 20 agencies in 2014–15).

FOI requests for personal information and for other information

Since 2000–01, agencies and ministers have reported separately the number of FOI requests received for documents containing personal information and for documents containing 'other' information. A request for personal information means a request for documents that contain information about a person who can be identified (usually the applicant, though not necessarily). A request for 'other' information means a request for all other documents, such as documents concerning policy development and government decision making.

30,297 (or 85.2%) of all FOI requests in 2014–15 were for documents containing personal information. The percentage of such requests increased from 79.7% in 2013–14. There was a decrease of 9% in the number of FOI requests for other (non-personal) information in 2014–15.

Table 8.3 shows the type of requests that the 20 agencies received in 2014–15 with a comparison to the number of requests each received in 2013–14.

Table 8.3 Types of FOI requests received by agency
Agency
Personal 2013–14
Other 2013–14
Personal 2014–15
Other 2014–15
Department of Immigration and Border Protection
11,113
741
18,245
606
Department of Human Services
4298
139
4383
118
Department of Veterans' Affairs
3629
52
3395
41
Migration Review Tribunal
708
7
1040
22
Australian Taxation Office
287
481
556
443
Refugee Review Tribunal
624
9
766
0
Australian Federal Police
360
125
373
132
Department of Defence
212
221
129
280
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
115
166
122
209
Department of Health
6
308
3
320
Attorney-General's Department
78
185
55
204
Australian Securities and Investments Commission
26
211
31
223
Australian Postal Corporation
163
44
213
31
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
7
202
3
238
Australian Customs and Border Protection Service
65
153
70
143
Department of the Treasury
6
185
3
209
Department of Social Services
92
102
Department of Employment
104
53
122
60
Trade Marks Office
1
278
0
165
Department of Finance
13
210
11
127
Total top 20
21,849[^]
3880[^]
29,612
3673
Remaining agencies
841
1893
685
1580
Total
22,690
5773
30,297
5253

[^] Shows the total for the top 20 agencies in 2013–14 (ie includes figures for one agency that is not in the top 20 agencies in 2014–15).

FOI requests determined

In 2014–15, agencies and ministers processed FOI requests as follows (previous year figures are in round brackets):

  • on hand at the beginning of the year: 2397 (2649)
  • received during the year: 35,550 (28,463)
  • requiring determination (ie on hand at the beginning of the year or received during the year): 37,947 (31,112)
  • withdrawn: 3641 (3190)
  • transferred: 729 (944)
  • determined (ie access granted in full or in part, or refused): 29,000 (23,106)
  • finalised (ie withdrawn, transferred or determined): 33,370 (27,240)
  • on hand at the end of the year (ie requiring determination but not finalised): 4577 (3872).

Agencies and ministers determined 25.5% more requests, and finalised 22.5% more requests, in 2014–15 than in the previous reporting period.

Table 8.4 shows how FOI requests were determined in 2013–14 and 2014–15.

Table 8.4 FOI requests determined
Decision
Total 2013–14
%
Total 2014–15
%
Granted in full
12,109
52.4
16,374
56.5
Granted in part
7923
34.3
9601
33.1
Refused
3074
13.3
3025
10.4
Total
23,106
100.0
29,000
100.0

Table 8.5 shows how FOI requests were determined in 2013–14 and 2014–15, broken into requests for personal and other (non-personal) information.

Table 8.5 Breakdown of type of FOI requests determined
Decisions
Personal
2013–14
Other
2013–14
Personal
2014–15
Other
2014–15
Granted in full
11,054
1055
15,685
689
Granted in part
6420
1503
8191
1410
Refused
1600
1474
1665
1360
Total
19,074
4032
25,541
3459

The figures for FOI requests that were refused include cases in which the documents sought do not exist or cannot be found, as well as cases in which exemptions have been applied.

In 2014–15, 89.6% of requests were granted in full or in part (up from 86.7% in 2013–14). In 2014–15, the proportion of requests granted in full (56.5%) increased from 2013–14 (52.4%).

Table 8.6 lists the top 20 agencies by the number of FOI decisions they made. The Department of the Treasury and the Department of Finance are included on the list of the top 20 agencies in terms of requests received, but not in the top 20 of decisions made. In contrast, Comcare and the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC) feature in the top 20 by decisions made but not by requests received.

Table 8.6 Top 20 agencies by numbers of FOI requests determined
Agency
Granted
in full
%
Granted
in part
%
Refused
%
Total
Department of Immigration and Border Protection
9667
59.5
5692
35.1
879
5.4
16,238
Department of Human Services
1702
48.5
1374
39.2
430
12.3
3506
Department of Veterans' Affairs
2989
98.3
29
1.0
22
0.7
3040
Australian Taxation Office
119
16.4
445
61.5
160
22.1
724
Refugee Review Tribunal
540
81.8
91
13.8
29
4.4
660
Migration Review Tribunal
414
71.3
150
25.8
17
2.9
581
Australian Federal Police
25
4.8
343
66.3
149
28.8
517
Department of Defence
19
7.3
180
69.0
62
23.8
261
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
47
19.3
135
55.6
61
25.1
243
Australian Securities and Investments Commission
28
12.4
39
17.3
159
70.4
226
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
23
12.9
29
16.3
126
70.8
178
Australian Postal Corporation
110
62.9
23
13.1
42
24.0
175
Trade Marks Office
56
32.6
112
65.1
4
2.3
172
Department of Health
35
21.0
64
38.3
68
40.7
167
Attorney-General's Department
12
7.4
73
45.1
77
47.5
162
Australian Customs and Border Protection Service
33
20.8
97
61.0
29
18.2
159
Department of Social Services
56
44.4
29
23.0
41
32.5
126
Department of Employment
58
46.8
44
35.5
22
17.7
124
Comcare
19
18.8
42
41.6
40
39.6
101
Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC)
40
40.4
26
26.3
33
33.3
99
Top 20
15,992
58.2
9017
32.8
2450
8.9
27,459
Remaining agencies
382
24.8
584
37.9
575
37.3
1541
Total
16,374
56.5
9601
33.1
3025
10.4
29,000

Use of exemptions

Table 8.7 shows how Australian Government agencies and ministers claimed exemptions under the FOI Act when processing FOI requests in 2014–15. More than one exemption might be applied in processing an FOI request.

Table 8.7 Use of exemptions in FOI decisions
FOI Act reference
Exemption
Personal
Other
Total
%
s 33 Documents affecting national security, defence or international relations
397
150
547
4.6
s 34 Cabinet documents
1
69
70
0.6
s 37 Documents affecting enforcement of law and protection of public safety
1269
192
1461
12.2
s 38 Documents to which secrecy provisions of enactments apply
403
197
600
5.0
s 42 Documents subject to legal professional privilege
165
102
267
2.2
s 45 Documents containing material obtained in confidence
171
103
274
2.3
s 45A Parliamentary Budget Office documents
0
2
2
0.0
s 46 Documents disclosure of which would be contempt of Parliament or contempt of court
13
3
16
0.1
s 47 Documents disclosing trade secrets or commercially valuable information
31
100
131
1.1
s 47A Electoral rolls and related documents
4
1
5
0.0
s 47B Commonwealth-State relations
63
57
120
1.0
s 47C Deliberative processes
296
270
566
4.7
s 47D Financial or property interests of the Commonwealth
0
15
15
0.1
s 47E Certain operations of agencies
1228
435
1663
13.9
s 47F Personal privacy
4873
804
5677
47.6
s 47G Business
190
328
518
4.3
s 47H Research
3
2
5
0.0
s 47J The economy
0
1
1
0.0

No exemption was claimed by the agency or minister in 5474 requests. The personal privacy exemption in s 47F of the FOI Act was the most-claimed exemption, being claimed in 47.6% of FOI decisions. The next most-claimed exemptions were s 47E (certain operations of agencies (13.9%)) and s 37 (documents affecting enforcement of law and protection of public safety (12.2%)).

Use of practical refusal

Section 24AB of the FOI Act sets out a 'request consultation process', which must be undertaken if a 'practical refusal reason' exists (s 24AA). A practical refusal reason exists if the work involved in processing the FOI request would substantially and unreasonably divert the agency's resources from its other operations, or the FOI request does not adequately identify the documents sought.

The request consultation process involves the agency sending a written notice to the FOI applicant, advising them that the agency intends to refuse the request and providing details of how the FOI applicant can consult with the agency. The FOI Act imposes an obligation on the agency to take reasonable steps to help the FOI applicant to revise their request so that the practical refusal reason no longer exists.

Table 8.8 provides information about how Australian Government agencies and ministers engaged in request consultation processes under s 24AB of the FOI Act in 2014–15 and the outcome of those processes.

Table 8.8 Use of practical refusal
Practical refusal processing step
Personal
Other
Total
%
Notified in writing of intention to refuse request
643
896
1539
Request was subsequently refused or withdrawn
438
666
1104
71.7
Request was subsequently processed
205
230
435
28.3

Agencies sent 12.4% fewer notices of an intention to refuse a request in 2014–15 than in 2013–14. In 2014–15, 71.7% of those requests were subsequently refused or withdrawn; the proportion was 67.1% in 2013–14 and 42.7% in 2012–13.

In 2014–15, agencies sent 38.4% fewer notices of an intention to refuse a request for personal information than in 2013–14, and 25.5% more notices of an intention to refuse a request for other information.

There was a decrease in the number of personal information requests that were subsequently processed following the request consultation process. In 2013–14, 38% of personal requests were processed following the request consultation process. This number decreased to 31.9% in 2014–15. The proportion of other requests that were subsequently processed was similar in 2013–14 and 2014–15 (25.5% and 25.7% respectively).

Time taken to respond to FOI requests

As a starting point, once an FOI request has been received, an agency or minister has 30 days within which to make a decision under the FOI Act. The FOI Act allows for the extension of that statutory timeframe in certain circumstances. If a decision is not made on a request within the statutory timeframe (as extended, if applicable) then s 15AC of the FOI Act provides that a decision refusing access is deemed to have been made. Nonetheless, agencies can and are encouraged to continue to process a request that has been deemed to have been refused. If an applicant seeks Information Commissioner review (IC review) of a deemed decision, s 55G provides that the agency can only make a substituted decision that is more favourable to the applicant while that IC review is under way.

An agency may extend the period of time to make a decision by agreement with the applicant (s 15AA), or to undertake consultation with a third party (ss 15(6)–(8)). An agency can also apply to the Australian Information Commissioner (Information Commissioner) for more time to process a request when the request is complex or voluminous (s 15AB), or when access has been deemed to be refused (s 15AC or s 51DA) or affirmed on internal review (s 54D). These extension provisions acknowledge that there are circumstances when it is appropriate for an agency to take more than 30 days to process a request.

When an agency has obtained an extension of time to deal with an FOI request, and resolves the request within the extended time period, the request is recorded as having been determined within the statutory time period. Table 8.9 shows the response times for all agencies and ministers for 2013–14 and 2014–15.

Table 8.10 shows response times separately for personal and other requests in 2013–14 and 2014–15. In 2014–15, 95.3% of all FOI requests determined were processed within the applicable statutory time period: 96.1% of all personal information requests and 89% of non-personal requests.

Table 8.9 Response times — FOI requests
Response time
Total
2013–14
%
Total
2014–15
%
Within applicable statutory time period
22,132
95.8
27,634
95.3
Up to 30 days over applicable statutory time period
557
2.4
990
3.4
31–60 days over applicable statutory time period
234
1.0
224
0.8
61–90 days over applicable statutory time period
98
0.4
73
0.3
More than 90 days over applicable statutory time period
85
0.4
79
0.3
Total
23,106
100
29,000
100
Table 8.10 Response times broken down by personal and other
Response time
Personal 2013–14
Other 2013–14
Personal 2014–15
Other 2014–15
Within applicable statutory time period
18,488
3644
24,555
3079
Up to 30 days over applicable statutory time period
348
209
743
247
31–60 days over applicable statutory time period
128
106
160
64
61–90 days over applicable statutory time period
65
33
45
28
More than 90 days over applicable statutory time period
45
40
38
41
Total
19,074
4032
25,541
3459

Table 8.11 shows those agencies and ministers that, in 2014–15, had one or more FOI requests that took more than 90 days to finalise beyond the applicable statutory time period.

Eight agencies or ministers took longer than 90 days after the applicable statutory period had expired to process more than 5% of their FOI requests (up from three agencies in 2013–14).

Table 8.11 Response times greater than 90 days after the expiry of the applicable statutory period 2014–15
Agency
Total requests determined
Requests determined more than 90 days after statutory period
% of total
Australian Federal Police
517
28
5.4
Australian Customs and Border Protection Service
159
12
7.5
Department of Immigration and Border Protection
16,238
12
0.1
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
178
10
5.6
Prime Minister
29
5
17.2
Australian Trade Commission (Austrade)
11
3
27.3
Department of Communications
27
2
7.4
Department of Human Services
3506
2
0.1
Assistant Minister for Immigration and Border Protection
1
1
100
Australian Electoral Commission
28
1
3.6
Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency
2
1
50.0
Australian Taxation Office
724
1
0.1
Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations
27
1
3.7

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Applications for amendment of personal records

Section 48 of the FOI Act confers a right on a person to apply to an agency or to a minister to amend a document, to which lawful access has been granted, where the document contains personal information about the applicant:

  • that is incomplete, incorrect, out of date or misleading, and
  • that has been used, is being used, or is available for use by the agency or minister for an administrative purpose.

In 2014–15, 2589 amendment applications were received by agencies. This is a 10.4% decrease from 2013–14, following an increase of 1.3% in 2013–14, and decreases of 20% in 2010–11, 5% in 2011–12, and 18.9% in 2012–13. Twelve agencies received applications for amendment in 2014–15. One agency, DIBP, received 2510 amendment applications (96.9% of the total).

2542 amendment applications were determined in 2014–15 (23% less than in 2013–14). Table 8.12 compares the decision making for amendment applications for the last four reporting periods. In 2014–15, a decision to amend or annotate a person's personal record was made in 72% of the determined applications.

Table 8.12 Determination of amendment applications
Decision
2011–12
%
2012–13
%
2013–14
%
2014–15
%
Requests granted: amend record
1884
52.9
1873
64.7
2040
61.8
1624
63.9
Requests granted: annotate record
717
20.1
236
8.2
208
6.3
203
8.0
Requests granted: amend and annotate record
2
0.0
1
0.0
0
0.0
2
0.1
Requests refused
961
27.0
783
27.1
1055
31.9
713
28.0
Total decided
3564
100
2893
100
3303
100
2542
100

Time taken to respond to amendment applications

An agency is required to notify an applicant of a decision on their application to amend personal records as soon as practicable, but in any case not later than 30 days after the date the request is received, or a longer period as extended under the FOI Act.

In 2014–15, 97.9% of amendment applications were decided within the statutory time period. This is an increase from 2013–14 (87.5%). Eight of the 10 applications not processed within the statutory time period were applications filed with DIBP. This is an improvement from 2013–14 and 2012–13, when DIBP did not process 19 and 93 applications respectively within the statutory time period.

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Charges

Under the Freedom of Information (Charges) Regulations 1982 (Charges Regulations), FOI charges apply only to an initial access decision under Part III of the FOI Act. There is no charge for making an application:

  • for access to a document under s 15
  • for amendment or annotation of a personal record under s 48
  • for internal review of a decision under s 54 or s 54A
  • for IC review of a decision under s 54L or s 54M.

A fee is payable for an application to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) for review of a decision under Part VIIA of the FOI Act.

Section 29 of the FOI Act provides for an agency or minister to impose charges in respect of FOI requests, and the process by which they are assessed, notified and adjusted. The applicant must be given notice in writing when an agency or minister decides under the Charges Regulations that the applicant is liable to pay a charge. The notice must specify that the applicant is liable to pay a charge, the preliminary assessment of the charge to be paid, the basis of calculation and the applicant's right to contend that the charge has been wrongly assessed or should be reduced or waived.

Charges that agencies can impose for processing FOI requests include charges for search and retrieval time, decision making, retrieving and collating electronic information, preparing transcripts and photocopying. An agency or minister has a discretion to impose or not impose a charge, or impose a charge that is lower than the applicable charge under regulation 3 of the Charges Regulations.

The applicant must, within 30 days, or such further period allowed by the agency, agree to pay the charge, dispute the charge, seek a waiver or reduction, or withdraw the FOI request. When an applicant asks that the charge be reduced or not imposed, the agency must consider the applicant's reasons and may decide to reduce the charge or to not impose it.

Table 8.13 shows the amounts collected by the 20 agencies that collected the most in charges under the FOI Act in 2014–15. These top 20 agencies collected 83.6% of all charges collected by Australian Government agencies and ministers under the FOI Act during that period. An agency may notify a charge in one financial year and collect the charge in a subsequent financial year.

Table 8.13 Top 20 agencies by charges collected
Agency
Requests received
Requests where charges notified
Total charges notified
Total charges collected
Department of Health
323
117
$113,658
$28,762
Trade Marks Office
165
76
$17,017
$12,149
Australian Taxation Office
999
18
$16,588
$11,767
Department of Defence
409
100
$35,780
$9098
Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development
63
18
$35,276
$7307
Department of the Environment
98
17
$14,772
$6913
Department of Veterans' Affairs
3436
72
$5268
$5894
Department of Finance
138
74
$39,658
$5385
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
331
58
$17,760
$4716
Department of Agriculture
64
28
$9573
$4479
Department of Immigration and Border Protection
18,851
108
$26,723
$4423
National Health and Medical Research Council
23
7
$9518
$4328
Attorney-General's Department
259
30
$20,324
$3798
Australian Competition and Consumer Commission
46
28
$20,199
$3549
Defence Housing Australia
35
12
$9482
$3448
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
241
26
$8102
$2678
Australian Securities and Investments Commission
254
7
$10,793
$2563
Fair Work Commission
35
4
$3294
$2466
Department of Industry and Science
80
23
$8373
$2438
Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority
24
8
$1871
$2150
Top 20
25,874
831
$424,029
$128,311
Remaining agencies
9676
317
$121,303
$25,250
Total
35,550
1148
$545,332
$153,561

In 2014–15, agencies notified a total of $545,332 in charges, with respect to 1148 requests, but collected only $153,561 (28.2%) of those charges. This difference is due to agencies exercising their discretion under s 29 of the FOI Act not to impose the whole charge, or applicants deciding to withdraw an application and not pay the notified charge.

Agencies notified and collected fewer charges in 2014–15 than in the previous year. In 2013–14, agencies notified a total of $734,762 in charges, with respect to 4957 requests, and collected $239,628. The percentage decrease in the notification and collection amounts for 2014–15 were 25.8% and 35.9%, respectively.

Charges collected, as a proportion of the total cost of administering the FOI Act, remained stable. In 2014–15, charges collected represented 0.4% of the total cost of administering the FOI Act. In 2010–11,[1] it was 1.7%; in 2011–12, 1.0%; 2012–13, 0.5%; and in 2013–14, 0.6%. (See below for details of the cost of administering the FOI Act.)

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Disclosure log

As explained in Chapter Seven: FOI policy and compliance, all Australian Government agencies and ministers that are subject to the FOI Act are required to maintain an FOI disclosure log on their website. The disclosure log lists information that has been released to FOI applicants, subject to some exceptions (such as personal information).

Information was collected for the third time in 2014–15 from agencies and ministers on disclosure log activity. A total of 103 agencies and ministers provided information (down from 109 in 2013–14). Collectively, they reported 1019 documents listed on disclosure logs.

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Review of FOI decisions

Under the FOI Act, an applicant who is dissatisfied with the decision of a minister or an agency on their initial FOI request has several avenues for review or redress. The applicant can first seek internal review, then external merits review by the Information Commissioner (IC review), then review by the AAT, then appeal, on a question of law, to the Federal Court or the High Court. In addition, an applicant may make a complaint at any time to the Information Commissioner or the Commonwealth Ombudsman about an agency's actions under the FOI Act.

Third parties that have been consulted in the FOI process also have review rights if an agency decides to release documents contrary to their submissions. Consultation requirements apply for state governments (ss 26A and 26AA), the Australian Government in relation to FOI requests made to a Norfolk Island authority (s 26AA), commercial organisations (s 27) and private individuals (s 27A).

Section 23 of the FOI Act provides that decisions on requests made to an agency can be made by the responsible minister or the principal officer of that agency, or by authorised officers of the agency. There is no express power in the FOI Act for a minister to authorise another person to make a decision on an FOI request received by the minister. The Information Commissioner's view is that it is nevertheless open to a minister to authorise members of the minister's staff or of an agency to make such decisions.

Internal review

A person who is dissatisfied with an agency's access refusal or access grant decision can apply either for internal review or IC review of that decision. Internal review is not available if the initial decision maker is the responsible minister or the principal officer of the agency. Although there is no requirement to do so, the Information Commissioner recommends that a person apply for internal review (if available) before applying for IC review.

Internal review is a merits review process. The internal review officer can decide all issues raised by an applicant's FOI request, and exercise all the powers available to the original decision maker. The internal review officer may rely on work undertaken by the original decision maker, or may cause the same work to be undertaken again. All the material available to the original decision maker should be available to the internal review officer. The internal review officer may consider additional material and submissions not considered by the original decision maker.

In 2014–15, 541 applications were made for internal review of FOI decisions: 9.2% fewer than in 2013–14. Of the 541 applications for internal review, 320 (59.1%) were for review of decisions on requests for personal information and 221 (40.9%) were for review of decisions on other (non-personal) requests.

Agencies finalised 515 decisions on internal review in 2014–15: 5% fewer than were made in 2013–14. Of these, 260 (50.5%) affirmed the original decision, 73 (14.2%) set aside the original decision and granted access in full, 133 (25.8%) granted access in part, three granted access after deferment (0.6%), two (0.4%) granted access in another form, 13 (2.5%) resulted in lesser access and applicants withdrew 19 applications (3.7%) without concession by the agency. Agencies reduced the charges levied as a result of internal review in 12 cases (2.3%).

In 2014–15 there were 14 applications for internal review of agencies' decisions on amendment applications (in 2013–14 there were 56 such applications). Agencies made 50 internal review decisions: in 41 cases the original decision was affirmed and in nine cases it was set aside.

Information Commissioner review

Table 8.14 provides a breakdown of the top 20 agencies and ministers by the number of IC review applications received in 2014–15. In total, there were 373 applications for IC review (down 28.6%).

Table 8.14 Top 20 agencies/ministers by numbers of IC review applications
Agency/minister
Total FOI requests received by agency
Access refusal decisions
Access grant decisions
Total IC reviews
Department of Immigration and Border Protection
18,851
70
1
71
Department of Human Services
4501
43
0
43
Australian Federal Police
505
27
0
27
Australian Taxation Office
999
16
2
18
Australian Securities and Investments Commission
254
14
3
17
Australian Customs and Border Protection Service
213
15
0
15
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
241
15
0
15
Attorney-General's Department
259
13
0
13
Department of Veterans' Affairs
3436
13
0
13
Department of Defence
409
11
1
12
Office of the Prime Minister
48
9
0
9
Australian Postal Corporation
244
7
0
7
Civil Aviation Safety Authority
110
7
0
7
Department of the Environment
97
4
3
7
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
331
7
0
7
Department of Finance
138
4
3
7
Comcare
111
5
0
5
Department of Health
323
5
0
5
Australian Crime Commission
38
4
0
4
Department of Employment
182
4
0
4
Subtotal
31,290
293
13
306
Remaining agencies/ministers
3886
63
4
67
Total
35,176
356
17
373

Generally speaking, the agencies about which the most IC review applications were made were those that received the largest number of FOI requests in 2014–15. Fifteen or more IC review applications were made about each of seven agencies: DIBP, DHS, the Australian Federal Police, the ATO, Australian Securities and Investments Commission, Australian Customs and Border Protection Service and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Each of those agencies is in the top 20 agencies in terms of FOI requests received.

Information about the Information Commissioner's handling of IC reviews is given in Chapter Seven: FOI policy and compliance.

Administrative Appeals Tribunal review

An application can be made to the AAT for review of the following FOI decisions:

  • a decision of the Information Commissioner on an IC review
  • an IC reviewable decision (that is, an original decision or an internal review decision), but only if the Information Commissioner decides, under s 54W(b), that the interests of the administration of the FOI Act make it desirable that the IC reviewable decision be considered by the AAT.

An application for the review of one of these decisions may be made by a person whose interests are affected by the decision.[2] The fee for an application to the AAT increases on each biennial anniversary of 1 July 1996, based on a calculation related to the Consumer Price Index. The fee during the reporting period was $861.

As with IC review, the AAT conducts a merits review process. The AAT's decisions are appealable to the Federal Court of Australia, but only on a question of law.

Chart 8.1 shows the number of applications for review of FOI decisions received by the AAT since 1983–84, based on data provided in previous OAIC annual reports and earlier FOI annual reports.

Chart 8.1 Applications for review of FOI decisions received by the AAT since 1983–84

Link to long text description follows image.

Chart 8.1 shows that 64 FOI decisions were appealed to the AAT in 2014–15. This is significantly more than the 35 decisions appealed in 2013–14 and the 42 decisions appealed in 2012–13.

Before November 2010, external merits review lay with the AAT alone.

Table 8.15 provides a breakdown by agency of applications to the AAT in FOI matters in 2014–15. This data has been provided by the AAT.

Table 8.15 AAT review by agency
Agency
Applications
% of total applications
Attorney-General's Department
3
4.7
Australian Crime Commission
1
1.6
Australian Federal Police
4
6.3
Australian Financial Security Authority
1
1.6
Australian National University
2
3.1
Australian Securities and Investments Commission
5
7.8
Australian Skills Quality Authority
2
3.1
Australian Taxation Office
2
3.1
Department of Defence
2
3.1
Department of Education and Training
1
1.6
Department of Finance
2
3.1
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
1
1.6
Department of Health
4
6.3
Department of Human Services
2
3.1
Department of Immigration and Border Protection
14
21.9
Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development
2
3.1
Department of Social Services
1
1.6
Department of the Treasury
1
1.6
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority
1
1.6
Individual/Non-government agency
8
12.5
Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission
2
3.1
National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority
2
3.1
Office of the Australian Information Commissioner
1
1.6
Total
64
100.0

Table 8.16 shows the outcome of the 53 FOI appeals finalised by the AAT in 2014–15. This data has been provided by the AAT.

Table 8.16 Outcomes of FOI appeals finalised by the AAT in 2014–15
AAT Outcomes
Number
Affirmed by consent/withdrawn
0
Set aside by consent/withdrawn
4
Varied by consent/withdrawn
2
Dismissed by consent/withdrawn
0
Withdrawn by consent/withdrawn
24
Affirmed by decision
9
Set aside by decision
4
Varied by decision
2
Dismissed by AAT
5
No application fee paid
2
Extension of time refused
1

Of the 53 FOI appeals finalised by the AAT, 15 (28.3%) resulted in a decision. The AAT affirmed the agency's decision in nine (60%) of those reviews, compared with two (28.6%) in 2013–14.

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Complaints about agency FOI actions

Complaints to the Information Commissioner

Information about the Information Commissioner's handling of FOI complaints is given in Chapter Seven: FOI policy and compliance.

Complaints to the Commonwealth Ombudsman

In the Portfolio Budget Statements 2014–15, the Australian Government announced that the OAIC would be disbanded from 1 January 2015, and the Commonwealth Ombudsman would handle all FOI complaints after that date. However, legislation to give effect to this change was not considered by the Senate before the end of the 2014 sitting period. As a result, transitional arrangements were put in place from 1 November 2014, with the Commonwealth Ombudsman handling FOI complaints.

From 1 November 2014, the Commonwealth Ombudsman received 106 complaints about FOI matters. The Commonwealth Ombudsman investigated 18 of these complaints. The Commonwealth Ombudsman received 9 complaints before 1 November 2014. Of these, five complainants were referred to the agency complained of, one complaint was transferred to the OAIC under s 6C of the Ombudsman Act 1976, and the Ombudsman declined to investigate the remaining three matters.

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Impact of FOI on agency resources

To assess the impact on agency resources of their compliance with the FOI Act, agencies are required to estimate the hours that staff spent on FOI matters and the non-labour costs directly attributable to FOI, such as training and legal costs. Agencies submit these estimates annually. Experience shows that agencies rarely keep exact records of hours spent by officers on FOI matters and other non-labour costs incurred. Agency estimates may also include FOI processing work undertaken on behalf of a minister's office.

For the fourth year, agencies have also reported on their costs of compliance with the IPS. To facilitate comparison with the information in previous annual reports, those IPS costs are not included in this analysis of the cost of agency compliance with the FOI Act, but are discussed separately below.

The total reported cost attributable to the FOI Act in 2014–15 was $40.022 million, a decrease of 4.3% on the previous year's total of $41.837 million. This decrease occurred despite an increase of 25.5% in requests determined, and an increase of 22.5% in requests finalised, over the same period. Total yearly FOI costs since the commencement of the FOI Act are shown in Table 8.17.[3]

Table 8.17 Comparative total yearly cost of FOI
Year
Total cost
Year
Total cost
Year
Total cost
1982–83[*]
$7,502,355
1993–94
$13,977,360
2004–05
$22,860,022
1983–84
$15,106,511
1994–95
$11,955,482
2005–06
$24,903,771
1984–85
$16,496,961
1995–96
$14,564,562
2006–07
$24,936,178
1985–86
$15,711,889
1996–97
$15,972,950
2007–08
$29,474,653
1986–87
$13,336,864
1997–98
$12,191,478
2008–09
$30,358,484
1987–88
$11,506,931
1998–99
$13,066,029
2009–10
$27,484,129
1988–89
$10,494,376
1999–00
$14,035,394
2010–11
$36,318,030
1989–90
$10,373,321
2000–01
$14,415,406
2011–12
$41,718,803
1990–91
$9,921,772
2001–02
$17,387,088
2012–13
$45,231,147
1991–92
$12,723,097
2002–03
$18,398,181
2013–14
$41,836,685
1992–93
$12,702,329
2003–04
$20,189,136
2014–15
$40,021,572

[*] Seven months only.

Table 8.18 sets out the average cost per FOI request determined (granted in full, in part or refused) for the last 10 years. The average cost per request determined in 2014–15 was $1380 (down 23.8%).

Table 8.18 Average cost per request for last 10 years
Year
Requests determined
Total cost
Average cost per request determined
2005–06
38,987
$24,903,771
$639
2006–07
34,158
$24,936,178
$730
2007–08
31,367
$29,474,653
$940
2008–09
25,139
$30,358,484
$1208
2009–10
19,583
$27,484,129
$1403
2010–11
20,187
$36,318,030
$1799
2011–12
22,237
$41,718,803
$1876
2012–13
21,764
$45,231,147
$2078
2013–14
23,106
$41,836,685
$1811
2014–15
29,000
$40,021,572
$1380

Chart 8.2 shows the relationship between FOI costs and the number of FOI requests received for each year since 1982–83. Between 1 December 1982 (the date the FOI Act commenced) and 30 June 2015, Australian Government agencies and ministers have received 1,020,360 FOI requests.

Chart 8.2 FOI costs in relation to number of requests received

Link to long text description follows image.

Staff costs

All agencies are required to supply information about staff resources allocated to FOI. This information includes:

  • the number of staff who spent 75% or more of their time on FOI work
  • the number of staff who spent less than 75% of their time on such work.

This covers all facets of agencies' processing FOI requests, including:

  • search and retrieval
  • consultation with third parties
  • decision making
  • internal review
  • FOI processing work for a minister's office.

Totals of FOI staffing across all Australian Government agencies for 2011–12, 2012–13, 2013–14 and 2014–15 are shown in Table 8.19.

Table 8.19 Total FOI staffing for years 2011–12 to 2014–15
Staffing
2011–12
2012–13
2013–14
2014–15
Staff numbers: 75–100% time spent on FOI matters
249
284
287
291
Staff numbers: less than 75% time spent on FOI matters
3722
3546
3623
3046
Total staff hours
576,824
638,466
630,936
589,726
Total staff years
288.4
319.2
315.5
294.9

Agencies provided estimates of the number of staff hours spent on FOI to enable calculation of salary costs (and 60% related costs) directly attributable to FOI. A summary of staff costs is provided in Table 8.20, based on information provided by agencies and the following median base annual salaries:[4]

  • FOI contact officer (officers whose duties included FOI work) $ 74,331[5]
  • other officers involved in processing requests
    • Senior Executive Service (SES) officers (or equivalent) $178,617[6]
    • APS Level 6 and Executive Levels (EL) 1–2 $108,013[7]
    • Australian Public Service (APS) Levels 1–5 $ 61,512[8]
  • Minister's office
    • Minister and advisers $133,905[9]
    • Minister's support staff $ 61,512[10]
Table 8.20 Estimated staff costs of FOI for 2014–15
Type of staff
Staff years
Salary costs
Related costs (60%)
Total staff costs
FOI contact officers
224.5
$16,685,934
$10, 011,560
$26,697,495
SES
7.7
$1,377,226
$826,336
$2,203,562
APS Level 6 and EL 1–2
30.3
$3,277,006
$1,966,204
$5,243,210
APS Levels 1–5
31.4
$1,928,401
$1,157,041
$3,085,442
Minister and advisers
0.6
$82,753
$49,652
$132,405
Minister's support staff
0.4
$22,391
$13,434
$35,825
Total
294.9
$23,373,711
$14,024,226
$37,397,939

Total estimated staff costs in 2014–15 were $37.398 million, 6.3% less than in the previous year. By contrast, in 2013–14, total estimated staff costs rose by 0.5%.

Non-labour costs

Non-labour costs directly attributable to FOI are summarised in Table 8.21, including the percentage change between 2013–14 and 2014–15. The total in 2014–15 was $2.624 million, 37.6% more than in 2013–14.

In 2014–15, the greatest decrease was in general administrative costs. The greatest increase was litigation costs (384.7%).

Table 8.21 Identified non-labour costs of FOI
Costs
2011–12
2012–13
2013–14
2014–15
% change
General legal advice costs
$5,323,951
$3,116,080
$830,002
$1,031,544
+24.3%
Litigation costs
$1,229,393
$727,879
$157,781
$764,772
+384.7%
Total legal costs
$6,553,344
$3,843,959
$987,783
$1,796,316
+81.9%
General administrative costs
$600,310
$1,100,960
$706,032
$378,265
-46.4%
Training
$398,373
$303,437
$134,989
$334,599
+147.9%
Other
$312,270
$266,893
$78,352
$114,453
+46.1%
Total
$7,864,297
$5,515,249
$1,907,156
$2,623,633
+37.6%

Average cost per FOI request

The average staff days per request ranged across agencies from 0.05 to 29.2 days in 2014–15. The overall average was 2.2 days. The average was 2.9 days in 2013–14, 3.4 days in 2012–13 and 3.1 days in 2011–12. The average cost per request ranged across agencies from $29 to $21,164. The overall average was $1126, a decrease of 23.4% on the previous year's average of $1470.

Table 8.22 lists the agencies/ministers that recorded an average cost of less than $200 per request received in 2014–15.

Table 8.22 Agencies/ministers with average cost per request less than $200
Agency
Requests
received
Average cost per request
Office of the Official Secretary to the Governor-General
11
$29
Federal Circuit Court of Australia
2
$30
Tax Practitioners Board
21
$33
Migration Review Tribunal
1062
$42
Minister for Health
5
$51
Refugee Review Tribunal
766
$57
Defence Force Remuneration Tribunal
1
$59
Independent Hospital Pricing Authority
1
$59
Remuneration Tribunal
1
$59
Assistant Treasurer
5
$64
Aboriginal Hostels Limited
2
$73
Tourism Australia
2
$79
Office of the Aged Care Commissioner
2
$116
Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation (previously ARIA)
2
$131
Veterans' Review Board
7
$131
Office of the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor (INSLM)
1
$178

Table 8.23 lists the agencies that recorded an average cost of more than $10,000 per request received in 2014–15.

Table 8.23 Agencies with average cost per request greater than $10,000
Agency
Requests
received
Average cost per request
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority
8
$21,164
Infrastructure Australia
5
$20,301
Australian Trade Commission (Austrade)
14
$19,479
Australian War Memorial
3
$16,877
National Native Title Tribunal
1
$13,134
Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)
25
$12,746
Minister for Human Services
2
$11,725
National Film and Sound Archive of Australia
2
$11,675
Patent Office
1
$11,426
Inspector-General of Taxation
1
$10,182

In 2014–15 the highest average cost per request was $21,164, compared to $31,837 in 2013–14.

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Impact of the Information Publication Scheme on agency resources

Agencies are required to provide information about the costs of meeting their obligations under the IPS, which commenced on 1 May 2011. Further information about the IPS is given in Chapter Seven: FOI policy and compliance.

The total reported cost attributable to compliance with the IPS in 2014–15 was $711,209, 58.3% less than in 2013–14 ($1.705 million).

Staff costs

Table 8.24 shows the total reported IPS staffing across Australian Government agencies in 2012–13, 2013–14 and 2014–15 and the percentage change between 2013–14 and 2014–15.

Table 8.24 Total IPS staffing
Staffing
2012–13
2013–14
2014–15
% change
Staff numbers: 75–100% time on IPS matters
20
17
5
-70.6%
Staff numbers: less than 75% time on IPS matters
529
415
240
-42.2%
Total staff hours
46,959
26,116
10,696
-59.0%
Total staff years
23.5
13.1
5.3
-59.5%

Table 8.25 details the estimated staff costs of IPS for 2014–15, for:

  • IPS contact officers (officers whose duties included IPS work)
  • Other officers involved in IPS work, including:
    • SES
    • APS Level 6 and EL 1–2
    • APS Levels 1–5.
Table 8.25 Estimated staff costs of IPS for 2014–15
Type of staff
Staff years
Salary costs
Related costs (60%)
Total staff costs
IPS contact officers
3.1
$233,065
$139,839
$372,904
SES
0.1
$23,131
$13,878
$37,009
APS Level 6 and EL 1–2
1.3
$137,339
$82,403
$219,742
APS Levels 1–5
0.8
$49,917
$29,950
$79,867
Total
5.3
$443,451
$266,071
$709,522

Non-labour costs

Table 8.26 details the identified non-labour costs of the IPS in 2012–13, 2013−14 and 2014−15 and the percentage change between 2013−14 and 2014−15.

Table 8.26 Identified non-labour costs of IPS
Item
2012–13
2013−14
2014−15
% change
General administrative costs
$24,383
$3768
$1287
-65.8%
General legal advice costs
$31,502
$319
$0
-100%
Training
$500
$0
$400
+100%
Other
$57,300
$2878
$0
-100%
Total
$113,685
$6965
$1687
-75.8%

After increasing in 2012–13, IPS general administrative costs and legal advice costs fell again substantially in 2014–15.

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OAIC expenditure on FOI functions

For the first half of the 2014–15 year the OAIC had three key functions: information policy, privacy and FOI functions. Although some staff of the OAIC worked in only one of these three areas, many work across two or all three functions. It is difficult to precisely identify the proportion of the OAIC's activities, and its resources, that are directed towards each function.

From January 2015, in accordance with the proposed legislative change outlined previously, the OAIC's FOI functions were reduced commensurate with resources.

Consequently, the OAIC estimates that 18% of its resources were directed towards exercising its FOI functions. The OAIC's total expenditure for the reporting period was $13.430 million (see Appendix 1). Accordingly, the OAIC estimates that it spent approximately $2.417 million on the exercise of its FOI functions in 2014–15 (down 49%).

The OAIC spent $14,158 on processing FOI requests made to the OAIC in 2014–15 (down 67%).

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Footnotes

[1] In 2010–11 and earlier, fees were collected in addition to charges; both are included in these figures. From 1 November 2010, the FOI Act and the Freedom of Information (Fees and Charges) Regulations (now called the Freedom of Information (Charges) Regulations 1982) were amended to abolish fees and some charges.

[2] Administrative Appeals Tribunal Act 1975, s 27.

[3] Before 2006–07, salary costs were calculated using the average of the salary levels of the three agencies recording the highest total FOI costs. Since 2006–07, salary costs have been calculated using median APS base salary figures and have taken account of SES salary costs. This means the data before 2006–07 is not strictly comparable with the data collected since 2006–07.

[4] As salary levels differ between agencies, median salary levels were used. These are given by the Australian Public Service Commission in its APS Remuneration Report 2014. These median levels are as at 31 December 2014.

[5] APS Level 5 base salary median.

[6] SES Band 1 base salary median.

[7] Executive Level 1 base salary median.

[8] APS Level 3 base salary median.

[9] Executive Level 2 base salary median.

[10] APS Level 3 salary median.

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Long text descriptions

Chart 8.1 Applications for review of FOI decisions received by the AAT since 1983–84

Chart 8.1 is a bar graph that illustrates the total number of applications received by the AAT for review of an FOI decision since 1983–84, based on data provided in previous OAIC annual reports and earlier FOI annual reports.

Year Number of applications
1983–84 200
1984–85 310
1985–86 267
1986–87 171
1987–88 80
1988–89 101
1989–90 73
1990–91 68
1991–92 74
1992–93 78
1993–94 129
1994–95 113
1995–96 118
1996–97 117
1997–98 122
1998–99 140
1999–2000 109
2000–01 150
2001–02 99
2002–03 118
2003–04 158
2004–05 142
2005–06 141
2006–07 120
2007–08 142
2008–09 139
2009–10 110
2010–11 82
2011–12 20
2012–13 42
2013–14 35
2014–15 64

Back to Chart 8.1

Chart 8.2 FOI costs in relation to number of requests received

This chart shows the relationship between FOI costs and the number of FOI requests received for each year since 1982–83.

Year Number of FOI requests Annual costs
1982–83 5576 $7,502,355
1983–84 19,227 $15,106,511
1984–85 32,956 $16,496,961
1985–86 36,512 $15,711,889
1986–87 29,880 $13,336,864
1987–88 27,429 $11,506,931
1988–89 24,679 $10,494,376
1989–90 23,543 $10,373,321
1990–91 24,929 $9,921,772
1991–92 28,247 $12,723,097
1992–93 33,804 $12,702,329
1993–94 36,547 $13,977,360
1994–95 37,367 $11,955,482
1995–96 39,327 $14,564,562
1996–97 30,788 $15,972,950
1997–98 32,590 $12,191,478
1998–99 33,484 $13,066,029
1999–2000 31,784 $14,035,394
2000–01 35,439 $14,415,406
2001–02 37,169 $17,387,088
2002–03 41,481 $18,398,181
2003–04 42,627 $20,189,136
2004–05 39,265 $22,860,022
2005–06 41,430 $24,903,771
2006–07 38,787 $24,936,178
2007–08 29,019 $29,474,653
2008–09 27,561 $30,358,484
2009–10 21,587 $27,484,129
2010–11 23,605 $36,318,030
2011–12 24,764 $41,718,803
2012–13 24,944 $45,231,147
2013–14 28,463 $41,836,685
2014–15 35,550 $40,021,572

Back to Chart 8.2

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