The Baillieu government has introduced significant changes to the Victorian freedom of information (FOI) regime by way of the Freedom of Information Amendment (Freedom of Information Commissioner) Act 2012.
As the name suggests, the reforms introduce a new Freedom of Information Commissioner (FOI Commissioner) with the functions of reviewing some agencies’ FOI decisions, receiving complaints regarding agencies’ compliance with the FOI law and reporting to Parliament on the operation of the FOI law. The reforms also provide for the establishment of ‘professional standards’ for agencies to comply with when dealing with an FOI application.
At the time of writing this article, the reforms are not yet in force; unless introduced earlier, they will come into effect on 1 December 2012.
The FOI Commissioner will effectively replace the current internal review process undertaken by agencies and will be able to review the following decisions:
The Victorian Administrative Appeals Tribunal (VCAT) will continue to have a role conducting merits reviews and will review:
In addition, VCAT may also review:
Importantly, an agency that is dissatisfied with a decision of the FOI Commissioner may also apply to VCAT for a review of the FOI Commissioner’s decision. In addition, a business may appeal to VCAT a decision of the FOI Commissioner to grant access to a document contrary to the business’ views.
Where the decision of an agency concerns documents that are considered exempt because they are Cabinet documents or documents regarding national security and the decision also concerns documents that are exempt for other reasons, an FOI applicant will be able to apply to VCAT for review in respect of the former documents and to the FOI Commissioner regarding the remaining documents.
The FOI Commissioner may dismiss an application for review if amongst other things the application is frivolous, vexatious, misconceived or the FOI Commissioner considers that it is not appropriate in the circumstances.
In terms of the FOI Commissioner’s review procedure, the review must be completed in an informal manner and within 30 days from the date of receiving an application for review. Where the FOI Commissioner has not made a decision within this time, the FOI Commissioner will be taken to have affirmed the decision of the agency. Written submissions may be provided to the FOI Commissioner by each party and the FOI Commissioner will be bound by the rules of natural justice. Importantly, the relevant agency must assist the FOI Commissioner in the review and the FOI Commissioner may compel the production of documents.
The FOI Commissioner will be able to receive, conciliate and make recommendations in relation to complaints about an agency’s dealings with an FOI application. The complaint may be about amongst other things, an agency’s delays and decisions by a minister to release documents contrary to a third party’s views. Further the FOI Commissioner may receive complaints about non-compliance with professional standards once they are established (as discussed below).
The responsible minister will be able to set binding professional standards in the regulations for agencies to follow. Principal officers of an agency must ensure that any officer or employee complies with the professional standards. As discussed above, complaints may be made to the FOI Commissioner regarding perceived breaches of the professional standards by agencies.
At the time of writing this article, no professional standards have been established. Nevertheless professional standards may capture such things as: criteria for clear identification of documents captured in a request by an agency, standards for clear communication between the agency and an FOI applicant and the setting of additional timelines for agencies dealing with an FOI request. At the outcome of a review of a complaint, the FOI Commissioner may make recommendations to an agency to improve its procedures.
As outlined above, the reforms have not yet come into force. However, due to the considerably different process now undertaken in terms of review and the need to comply with new professional standards, it will be important for agencies to use this time to train staff, establish new internal procedures and otherwise prepare for a new umpire in the FOI regime.
The content of this publication is for reference purposes only. It is current at the date of publication. This content does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Legal advice about your specific circumstances should always be obtained before taking any action based on this publication.