Individuals have the right to request access to documents from Australian Government ministers and most agencies under the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (FOI Act).
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Access to documents
The 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 FAQs for individuals. 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.
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.
The Information Publication Scheme
The Information Publication Scheme (IPS) applies to Australian Government agencies that are subject to the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (FOI Act). The IPS specifies categories of information that agencies must publish online. Agencies can also choose to publish other information under the IPS.
The IPS encourages agencies to proactively release information in a consistent way, reflecting the pro-disclosure goals of the FOI Act. Information published under the IPS must be accurate, up to date and complete.
The categories of information agencies must publish under the IPS are:
- details of the agency's structure (for example, in the form of an organisation chart)
- details of the agency's functions, including its decision making powers and other powers affecting members of the public
- details of statutory appointments of the agency
- the agency's annual reports
- details of consultation arrangements for members of the public to comment on specific policy proposals
- information in documents to which the agency routinely gives access in response to requests under the FOI Act
- information that the agency routinely provides to Parliament
- details of an officer (or officers) who can be contacted about access to the agency's information or documents under the FOI Act
- the agency's operational information, which is information that assists the agency to exercise its functions or powers in making decisions or recommendations that affect members of the public. This includes the agency's rules, guidelines, practices and precedents relating to those decisions and recommendations.
Agencies must also publish a plan describing how they will comply with the IPS requirements. Agencies may also choose to highlight the IPS on their home page using icons developed by the OAIC (available through the Australian Information Commissioner’s Guidance for Agency Websites: ‘Access to information’ web page.
The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) will work with agencies as part of an IPS Compliance Program to review the operation of each agency’s IPS entry every five years.
The Australian Information Commissioner can also issue guidelines about the IPS (see Part 13 of the FOI Guidelines) and may also make a determination that certain kinds of information should not be published under the IPS.
Anyone can complain to the Australian Information Commissioner about how an agency manages its IPS.
More information is available in FOI Fact Sheet 4 — the Information Publication Scheme for Australian Government agencies.
Personal records amendment
The FOI Act allows you to ask a minister or agency to amend or annotate a personal record they hold about you. You can do this if you believe that the personal record is out of date, misleading, incorrect or inaccurate.
Amending a personal record involves updating the information it contains so that it is no longer out of date, misleading, incorrect or inaccurate. Annotating a personal record involves attaching a note to the record outlining your objections to the information it contains.
Unlike other FOI requests, a request for amendment or annotation applies to ‘records of information’ contained within a document, rather than just a ‘document’. You can request amendment or annotation of any record of information about you that an agency or minister has used, is using or could use for an administrative purpose. You do not have to apply for amendment of a personal record before seeking annotation of the record.
A minister or agency can refuse to annotate a record if they consider the annotation to be voluminous, defamatory or irrelevant. They can also attach their own comments to an annotation.
If your request for amendment is refused, or if the amendment differs from what you requested, you can ask the agency to review its decision. You can also ask the minister or agency to annotate the record with a statement or file note reflecting your disagreement. Another available option is Information Commissioner review.
The Privacy Act 1988 (Privacy Act) also provides you with rights to request that ministers and agencies change information they hold about you. These rights are separate from your rights under the FOI Act.
Reviews and complaints
The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) conducts reviews under the FOI Act.
Information Commissioner review
FOI applicants can request that the Australian Information Commissioner (Information Commissioner) review a decision made by an agency or minister under the FOI Act. This may include a decision to:
- refuse full access to documents
- refuse to amend an individual’s personal information
- charge for access to documents.
Information Commissioner review (IC review) is also available in some circumstances to third parties appealing a decision to provide information about them to an FOI applicant.
Applicants can seek IC review either after receiving that decision or after they have asked the agency or minister to reconsider the decision (which is known as ‘internal review’).
For more information on how and when to request IC review, please see the FOI reviews process page.
Individuals can complain if they have concerns about actions an agency has taken in processing an FOI request. This is separate from requesting an IC review, as it relates to how an agency has dealt with an individual's FOI request, not the decision.
Following an Australian Government decision in 2014 to abolish the OAIC, all FOI complaints are now being handled by the Commonwealth Ombudsman.