Freedom of information win exposes need for reform

PIAC has supported a client to get access to information held by the government, using freedom of information processes.

We challenged a Local Health District to hand over information about a client detained under a COVID-19 public health order, which had been hidden in heavily redacted documents. Less than fifteen minutes before a hearing at the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT), the Local Health District provided a significantly less redacted version (as pictured), releasing information we had argued from the start that our client was entitled to. These documents will help empower our client to understand the reasons for his detention and to determine whether the decision to detain him was properly made.

This image shows the heavily redacted version on the left, and the second version, received prior to the hearing, on the right.

We will now carefully consider the information released – but the case highlights wider problems with how government bodies are responding to freedom of information requests.

‘People have a legal right to know what information the government holds about them unless there’s an overriding public interest for that information to be withheld,’ said PIAC Principal Solicitor, Jonathan Hall Spence.

‘In this case, we argued there was a clear public interest in releasing the information, and that the Local Health District and NSW Police could not justify the extent of redactions made to the documents.’

It should not take the threat of a tribunal hearing to get bodies to share information that people are entitled to, as Hall Spence explains.

‘The process of bringing an application, filing evidence and legal submissions and preparing for a hearing costs time and money, for both the government and applicants, and for many applicants that is time and money they don’t have.’

‘We first requested this information in November 2022. We are pleased that the redactions have been revised without the need for a hearing, but it does highlight the importance of agencies promptly and properly complying with freedom of information laws.’

This case reaffirms the need for urgent reforms to Australia’s freedom of information  systems. PIAC recently appeared at a Senate inquiry into the operation of Commonwealth Freedom of Information laws.

Here, Hall Spence and Senior Solicitor Mitchell Skipsey argued open government is vital for a healthy democracy, but the current FOI system is failing Australians. To restore the integrity of freedom of information operations, PIAC recommended increasing agency and Information Commissioner funding to speed up processing, improving accountability structures to better encourage a culture of transparency and reducing the scope of exemptions.

Read our submission to the inquiry.

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