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Freedom of information

Published: 
Monday, December 3, 2012
Law Made Simple

The Freedom of Information Act was passed in 1999 and came into force in parts in 2000 and 2001. The object of the act is to give members of the public a right, with exceptions, to access information in the possession of public authorities.

 

The act defines who is a public authority and sets out what documents or information can be accessed. Document includes documents recorded in electronic or other forms. Public Authority is defined as including among other offices or entities the Cabinet, Parliament, the judiciary, statutory bodies and companies that are owned by the State or exercise a function on behalf of the State.

 

 

The act also exempts certain offices or entities from the application of the act, such as the Office of the President, the Integrity Commission, and commissions of enquiry.

 

Duty to publish information
Under the act, public authorities have a duty to publish certain documents and information. It provides, among other requirements, that public authorities are to publish updated information on a yearly basis relating to its organisation and functions, the categories of documents it maintains in its possession, the places at which a person may inspect or obtain materials, the procedure to be followed in requesting access to a document, and the officer responsible for handling requests. Additionally, there is also provision that certain documents are to be available for inspection and purchase by members of the public.

 

Right to access
Members of the public can apply for access to official documents or to review their own personal information held by any public authority. To request official documents you must fill out a Request for Access to Official Documents form. Public authorities have a duty to assist applicants and the act stipulates a time limit for determination of a request by the authority.

 

Fees are not to be paid for the request except where there is a prescribed fee for the document. Access may be given in the requested form or another. The act sets out the circumstances where access may be temporarily deferred or where requests can be refused such as where the document is exempt. In these instances, reasons for refusal or deferment are to be given to the requestor.

 

Exempt documents
The act does not apply to documents open to public access. In terms of exempt documents, the act is very thorough.

 

 

Documents affecting legal proceedings or subject to legal professional privilege, those affecting personal privacy, relating to trade secrets, containing material obtained in confidence, affecting the economy or to which secrecy provisions apply, as well as cabinet, defence and security, international relations, governance and law enforcement documents, are generally exempt from disclosure.

 

Where a request is refused, the applicant has a right to challenge the decision by making a complaint in writing to the Ombudsman within 21 days of being refused access, or filing for judicial review of the decision within three months of the refusal. This column is not legal advice. If you have a legal problem you should consult a legal adviser.

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