You can request access to a document an Australian Government agency holds under the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (FOI Act). However, some documents may be exempt from disclosure. Some agencies are also exempt from the FOI Act, while other agencies are exempt from disclosing certain documents.
Under the FOI Act you can also request access to a document a minister holds.
Your reason for seeking access to a document is not relevant to the decision whether to release it.
You can access your personal information by:
- asking the agency that holds your personal information for it
- requesting access to it under the Privacy Act 1988
- requesting access to it under the FOI Act
Both the Privacy Act and the FOI Act define personal information in the same way: information or an opinion about you, if you are identifiable or reasonably identifiable from that information.
Acting on behalf of someone else
You can access the personal information of someone else if you have their authority to do so. The agency or minister that holds their personal information will let you know what proof they need.
Ask the agency that holds your personal information
Most agencies have arrangements in place for you to access your personal information if you ask. So try contacting the agency first and asking for access to it.
For example, the Australian Taxation Office will give you a copy of your most recent notice of assessment if you ask. Centrelink will give you a copy of your claim or review form, letter or notice they’ve sent you, as well as medical certificates and reports if you ask.
Asking an agency for your personal information doesn’t prevent you from making an FOI request later.
Access the information under the Privacy Act
When an Australian Government agency or minister collects, stores, uses and discloses any personal information about an individual, they must comply with the Australian Privacy Principles under the Privacy Act.
Access the information under the FOI Act
You have the right to access your personal information and have it amended or annotated if you think it’s inaccurate, incomplete, out of date, misleading or incorrect under FOI Act. You can make a FOI request to the agency or minister that holds your personal information, and the agency or minister must follow the formal process set out in the FOI Act.
Accessing other information
If you want access to non-personal information, try searching the website of the agency that holds the information. An agency may often make some statistics and data sets available for public use and re-use, and may also make them available on www.data.gov.au. If you can’t find the information on the agency’s website, contact the agency. They may supply the information if you ask.
The Information Publication Scheme also requires an agency to publish certain types of information, including routinely accessed information and operational information.
If you want access to information that an agency hasn’t published, you can make a FOI request. If your FOI request includes information that may be exempt under the FOI Act, such as someone else’s personal or business information, then the agency may have to consult them before deciding to disclose the document.
Accessing older government documents
An agency doesn’t need to keep all its documents forever. They send documents they’re required to archive to the National Archives of Australia. The rest they eventually destroy.
Under the Archives Act 1983, most government documents are disclosed when they reach the ‘open access period’. This period is progressively being reduced from 30 years to 20 years, over a 10 year period starting from 1 January 2011; except for Federal Cabinet documents, where the open access period is progressively being reduced from 50 years to 30 years.
If you want to access a document that has reached its open access period, contact the National Archives of Australia