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FOI fact sheet 16: Freedom of information — Extensions of time

Under the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (the FOI Act), the usual time that an agency or minister has to process your FOI access request is 30 days. However, in some circumstances that time can be extended. This fact sheet explains those circumstances, and other things that might affect the time spent processing your request.

Further information about the FOI process can be found in FOI Fact Sheet 9: What you can expect from agencies and ministers' offices and FOI fact sheet 12: Your review rights.

In this fact sheet, a reference to an agency includes a reference to a minister.

What extensions are available under the FOI Act?

Figure 1 gives an overview of the four main extension types in the FOI Act. These apply to the time an agency has to process your request. Each is explained in more detail below.

Figure 1: Types of extensions available under the FOI Act

Initial processing period
30 days
Extension to allow agency to consult a third party
Up to 30 days
Extension with your agreement in writing
Up to 30 days
Extension for complex or voluminous requests
(approved by Information Commissioner)

30 days or other appropriate period
Extension after the processing period runs out
(approved by Information Commissioner)

Time determined by Information Commissioner

1. Extensions to allow the agency to consult a third party

Sometimes a document you have requested contains personal or business information about a third party (an individual or organisation), or information which might affect the Commonwealth's relations with a state or territory government or a foreign government.

Under the FOI Act, the agency can consult the third party or other government if the agency believes that they might reasonably oppose the release of the document based on one of the exemptions in the Act. To give the agency enough time to consult, the FOI Act automatically extends the processing period for the request by 30 days.

If this happens, the agency will tell you and will let you know the new deadline for it to process your request.

2. Extensions with your agreement

The agency may ask you for an extension of time of up to 30 days (as either a single extension or a series of shorter extensions not exceeding a combined length of 30 days). If you agree to an extension, you must give the agency your agreement in writing. If you decline the agency's request, the agency may seek an extension from the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) (see 3 and 4 below).

Please note that even if you agree to an extension of time with the agency, the agency may use the other extension of time provisions outlined in this fact sheet to further extend the processing period. If you are concerned about additional extensions of time being used, discuss this with the agency before agreeing to an extension.

3. Extensions for complex or voluminous requests

If your request is large or complex, the agency can apply to the OAIC for an extension. The agency must explain why the request is complex or voluminous and provide details about the work already done on the request and the work still to be completed.

The OAIC will carefully consider the agency's reasoning before granting an extension. The OAIC will also take into account whether you have already agreed to an extension (see 2 above) and may seek your views about the agency's extension request if the extension request is for a particularly long period.

Generally an extension for a complex or voluminous request is 30 days, but it can be for a longer period if the OAIC considers this appropriate. The agency may also ask for a further extension if they believe they need more time to make their decision.

4. Extensions after the processing period runs out

If the period for processing your request runs out, the agency may apply to the OAIC for a one-off extension to allow it to finalise your request (for example, if they have nearly finished processing it).

If an agency has not given you a decision during the time allowed it cannot charge you for access to the documents you requested, regardless of whether the OAIC grants an extension once the time has expired.

What else might affect the time taken to process my request?

Making a request that does not meet FOI Act requirements

Your FOI access request needs to meet certain formal requirements, including where you send it. These requirements are explained in FOI fact sheet 6: Freedom of information — How to apply.

The initial 30-day period for processing your request will not start until your request meets those requirements (including sending your request to the correct postal address or specified email address for FOI requests). If you have made a request that does not comply with the Act, the agency must take reasonable steps to help you to make one that does.

Request consultation process

If the agency believes the work involved in processing your request would substantially and unreasonably divert its resources, it can refuse your request on the grounds that a ‘practical refusal reason' exists. However, before the agency does so, it must help you to revise your request (for example, by narrowing its scope) to allow it to proceed. This is called a ‘request consultation process' and, during this time, the processing period is suspended (the period restarts when you make a revised request or indicate in writing that you do not wish to revise your request).

Calculating a charge

The processing period is suspended from the time the agency notifies you of an estimated charge until the time you agree in writing to the charge. If you ask for a waiver or reduction of the charge, the period remains suspended until the agency notifies you of its decision on that matter.

More information about charges is available in FOI fact sheet 7: Freedom of information — Charges.

Can I object to an extension of time being granted by the OAIC?

The OAIC will usually consult you if the agency has asked for a particularly long extension, or if it has already applied for other extensions in relation to your request. The OAIC will take your views into account, but the final decision rests with the OAIC.

What happens if the agency does not meet the deadline for processing my request?

If a decision is not made before the deadline (including any extensions), your request is deemed to have been refused. You then have the right to ask for a review of the agency's refusal.

An agency should continue to process an FOI request even where the time has expired. The expiry of the deadline gives you the right to apply for review – it does not remove the agency's obligation to process your request.

If the agency does not meet the deadline for processing your request, any processing charge you were notified of is automatically waived and you will be entitled to a refund of any deposit paid.

When will the agency give me the documents?

Often the agency will give you access to the documents immediately after they have decided to grant access. However, the agency may withhold the documents until you have paid any outstanding charges. For more information, see FOI fact sheet 7: Freedom of information — Charges.

Also, as explained above, if you request a document that contains someone's personal or business information, or that affects relations with another government, the agency will usually ask that third party whether they object to the document's release.

If the agency decides to give you access to the document, the third party has 30 days to ask for a review of the decision. This means that the document cannot be released to you until the third party's review rights have run out.

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