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FOI Fact Sheet 9: What you can expect from agencies and ministers' offices

The Freedom of Information Act 1982 (the FOI Act) gives every person a right of access to documents held by government agencies and ministers' official documents relating to government agencies, unless the documents are exempt from disclosure. The FOI Act obliges agencies and ministers' offices to assist you by keeping you informed throughout the process, complying with set timeframes, giving you an opportunity to respond where appropriate and giving you written notice of their decisions. If you believe that an agency or minister's office has not complied with their obligations when handling your FOI request, you can complain to the Australian Information Commissioner.

Assisting and consulting you

A request for documents under the FOI Act must meet certain requirements. Your request must be in writing, specify that it is an application under the FOI Act and give a contact address (such as an email address). You do not need to give reasons for your request, but you must give enough information about the documents you are seeking to allow the agency or minister to identify them.

If you do not meet all these requirements, an agency must give you reasonable help to revise or complete your request. For more information about making an FOI request, see FOI fact sheet 6: Freedom of information – How to apply.

The Information Commissioner urges agencies and ministers' offices to develop FOI procedures to ensure:

  • the access request process is user-friendly, accessible, prompt and low-cost
  • applicants can contact someone in the agency or minister's office for assistance
  • applicants are kept informed throughout the process and given an opportunity to provide further information if this is needed.

Transferring your request

The agency or minister who receives your request may not have the documents you are seeking. If they know that another agency or minister has those documents, they may transfer your request to the other agency or minister, and must advise you they have done so.

Notifying you of important stages in the process

The agency or minister must keep you informed about the progress of your FOI request. They must give you:

  • written acknowledgement of your FOI request no later than 14 days after they receive it, and
  • either the documents you have asked for, or a written decision on your request no later than 30 days after they receive your request (unless the time frame is extended).

If the agency or minister decides to refuse your request, either in whole or in part, they must give you a written statement of their reasons.

Extending the timeframe

The 30 day period for handling your FOI request can be extended for various reasons.

An agency or minister may ask you to agree to an extension of up to 30 days if they consider your request will take longer to process. If you agree, you will be asked to confirm it in writing.

If your request concerns documents that:

  • affect State-Commonwealth relations (for example, if the documents came from a State Government agency)
  • include personal information about another person, or
  • contain information about another person's business,

the agency or minister may need to consult the State or the person concerned. This will extend the timeframe for making a decision by 30 days. The agency or minister must notify you in writing if this happens.

The agency or minister can also apply to the Information Commissioner for an extension if your request is complex or involves a large number of documents. The Information Commissioner can allow any extra period considered reasonable and can impose conditions on the extension (such as regular reports on progress).

Forms of access

An agency or minister may give you access to a document by:

  • giving you a copy of the document
  • giving you an opportunity to inspect the document
  • allowing you to hear or see the document (if it is made up of sounds or visual images)
  • giving you a written transcript if the document is recorded words.

You have the right to ask for access to documents in a particular form, such as in an electronic format rather than in photocopies. The agency or minister must provide access in the form you have requested unless doing so would interfere unreasonably with their work, would not be appropriate because of the nature of the document or would infringe someone else's copyright.

The agency or minister's office should contact you if they need to discuss whether they can give you the document in a different format.

Can an agency or minister delete parts of a document that I have requested?

Yes, if the part of the document that you have requested is exempt from disclosure under the FOI Act (for example, because it contains sensitive national security information) or if it contains irrelevant information. The agency or minister must consider if it is reasonably practicable to prepare an edited copy of the document, having regard to the modification that would be required and the resources this would take.

If an agency or minister prepares an edited copy of a document, they must notify you in writing that the edited copy has been prepared and explain briefly why certain deletions have been made.

If your request is too large

The Information Commissioner expects agencies and ministers to take reasonable steps to find all the documents covered by your request, but there are limitations to this.

Agencies and ministers must consider the resources they require to:

  • identify, locate and collate the documents you have requested
  • examine the documents
  • consult with any third party about documents that concern them
  • decide whether to grant, refuse or defer access to the documents
  • make a copy or edited copy of the documents.

After considering these factors an agency or minister may decide not to give you access to the documents you have requested because doing so would substantially and unreasonably divert their resources from their other responsibilities. Before they make this decision they must notify you in writing that they intend to refuse you access. They must give you an opportunity to revise your request and help you if you need it.

Charging you for your request

There is no fee for making an FOI request. However, an agency or minister may impose a charge for processing your request, except where you are asking for your own personal information.

The FOI Act specifies the charges that an agency or minister can impose. In addition, a charge should fairly reflect the work involved in providing access to you. Before requiring you to pay a charge, the agency or minister must send you a notice setting out an estimate and explaining the basis for their calculation. They can require you to pay a deposit before your request is processed. You will have the opportunity to respond to the estimate, and you may decide to narrow the scope of your request to reduce the work required.

You can ask for the charge to be reduced or for the documents to be provided for free, for example, if you are in financial hardship or you consider that giving access would be in the general public interest. You can also ask the Information Commissioner to review the decision about charges.

For further information, see FOI fact sheet 7: Freedom of information — Charges.

Your rights of review

The written notice of decision about your request must include information about your right to seek review if you disagree with the decision. Your review rights include internal review by the agency (usually by a more senior officer) and review by the Information Commissioner. The information Commissioner can decide that a document is not exempt or that a charge should be reduced or not imposed. No internal review is available if the decision maker was the principal officer of the agency or a minister.

For further information, see FOI fact sheet 12: Your review rights.

Making a complaint

If you believe that an agency or minister's office has not met their obligations when handling your FOI request, you can complain to the Information Commissioner.

For further information, see How do I make an FOI complaint?

The information provided in this fact sheet is of a general nature. It is not a substitute for legal advice.

For further information

telephone: 1300 363 992
email: enquiries@oaic.gov.au
write: GPO Box 5218, Sydney NSW 2001
Or visit our website at www.oaic.gov.au