What happens if a request doesn’t comply with the requirements under the Freedom of Information Act 1982?

11 April 2019
Tags: time to process an FOI request disclosure log document FOI request

An FOI request must be in writing and state, among other things, that it is an application under the FOI Act. If a request does not meet a requirement set out in the FOI Act, an agency has an obligation to assist the applicant to complete or revise the request. See s 15(2) of the FOI Act and Part 3 of the Guidelines.

Who can apply for access to documents under the FOI Act?

Any person can apply — the right to access documents under the FOI Act is not restricted to Australian citizens or people within Australia. A ‘person’ also includes a body corporate, such as a company. See s 11 of the FOI Act and Part 2 of the Guidelines.

When is a person not entitled to request documents under the FOI Act?

A person cannot obtain access to a document under the FOI Act if the document is already publicly available in accordance with other legislation where a charge applies (such as a land title register), or if the document is available for purchase from the agency or is available under the Archives Act 1983 (unless the document contains personal information). Employees or former employees of an agency are not entitled to request their personnel records under the FOI Act if they have not first sought them through the agency’s established access procedures (where these exist).

See ss 12 and 15A of the FOI Act and Part 3 of the Guidelines.

Can an FOI request be made over the phone?

No. An FOI request must be in writing. However, if an agency receives a request that does not comply with the FOI Act requirements, it may not be necessary for the applicant to resubmit a fresh request in writing if the agency can help them to fulfil the requirements by phone. See s 15(2) of the FOI Act and Part 3 of the Guidelines.

Does an emailed FOI request meet the requirements of the FOI Act if it is not sent to the agency’s ‘specified address’ but to another agency email address (such as an individual staff member)?

FOI request may be emailed to an electronic address specified by the agency. If an agency has specified an email address (such as foi@agency.gov.au), a request sent to another email address should be transferred to the appropriate area of the agency. The time of receipt of the application will be when the request is received at the correct address. See s 15(2A)(c) of the FOI Act.

What happens if an agency sends an applicant an acknowledgement letter and the FOI request does not meet the Act’s formal requirements? Does the processing period run or does the ‘clock stop’?

The processing period only commences on the day after a request that meets the requirements of the FOI Act is received. Agencies must help the applicant to make a request that complies with the formal requirements of the FOI Act. See s 15 of the FOI Act and Part 3 of the Guidelines.

What happens if an agency receives two separate FOI requests for the same documents?

The agency must process the FOI requests from different people for the same documents. If one person makes subsequent requests for the same documents, each request must be treated on its merits. Publication of a popular document on the disclosure log will enable access to the document outside of the formal FOI request process.