Business Law

Freedom of Information – your right to know

B2B Editor13 June 2016

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Have you ever wanted to know what goes on behind the closed doors of Government agencies and a Minister’s office? You might be surprised to realise that the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Cth) (the Act) grants you a fundamental legal (and democratic) right to access that information, subject to certain exemptions such as confidentiality or national interest considerations. Equivalent statutes exist at the State and Territory levels. Such access can be invaluable when it comes to doing business with Government, or contesting a Departmental decision.

The rationale behind freedom of information can be summarised in four points:

1. it allows any individual to see what information the Government holds about them, and to correct it where inaccurate;

2. it assists in making Government policy and decision-making more transparent;

3. a better informed community can participate more effectively in democratic processes; and

4. information gathered by the Government at public expense is a national resource and should be widely available to the public.

The Act applies to a wide variety of materials (in written, audio, visual and electronic formats). Where such information is in the possession of a Government agency or Minister, it may be subject to a freedom of information request. You have different rights to different types of information. Government documents can be accessed and inspected, while personal information can be corrected (if it is wrong or misleading). You can exercise your access rights by submitting a written request to the relevant agency or Minister and your request can be specific to a single document, or made broadly by reference to a particular event, person or issue.

The Government can only refuse your request if it has a clear basis for exemption under the Act. These exemptions exist to protect sensitive information, such as documents relating to national security, defence or international relations, law enforcement and public safety and any Cabinet documents. Additionally, key intelligence agencies are automatically exempt from freedom of information requirements.

It is not always necessary to make an “FOI request” to gain access to Government information. Often, a Minister or agency will provide you with the information directly, bypassing the formality of the FOI process. If this proves unsuccessful, you can make an official request under the Act. There is no charge if you request access to your own personal information; however, a fee may be charged for other documents. If your access request is denied, you can apply for a review of the decision.

If you need information held by a Government agency, remember that it’s your legal right to access it and – in principle – all you have to do is ask.


Mark Love, Legal Director, Business Law
9th Floor, Canberra House, 40 Marcus Clarke Street, Canberra ACT 2601
E: [email protected]
T: 02 6274 0810 |