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Freedom of Information:

When can Documents and Information be Accessed?

Rights conferred by the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Vic) (‘the Act’) can arise in many different settings and for varying reasons. You may have a situation for instance, where you were a patient in hospital and you seek to gain access to your medical records. Or you may have made a statement to the police as a witness to a crime. In situations such as these, you may wish to access documents through Freedom of Information.

The Act gives you a legal right to request information held by specific institutions and individuals, such as – public hospitals, statutory authorities, local councils, Ministers, community health centres, universities and schools. Some of your rights include the right to access documents about your personal affairs, the activities of government agencies and the right to request that incorrect or misleading information held by an agency be amended or removed.

Some of the documents that are covered by the Act include documents that are created by the agency, or supplied to the agency and documents of a non-personal nature. Additionally, electronic material, such as word documents and photographs may also be accessed through the Act.

There are however, exceptions stipulating when documents cannot be claimed. Therefore, not all information is automatically available. Situations can arise in which information is exempt and cannot be accessed. Under the Act, an agency is allowed to refuse access to certain documents or information in particular circumstances. In some cases, access to an entire document may be refused. Alternatively, you may be given access to a document with the exempt information removed. This may occur because of the inherent nature of the information. For example, some law enforcement documents and documents containing information provided to an agency by a business may be unattainable despite the Act expressly conferring the right to Freedom of Information. Some documents may also contain information that concerns the personal nature of a number of people and thus disclosing it would be an unreasonable intrusion into their personal affairs.

The information you may wish to access may also be unattainable because the institution holding the information is a privately owned business. The Act does not apply to such bodies, therefore documents will be unable to be accessed upon request in such circumstances.

Requests for Freedom of Information are not always straightforward. Although the Act confers the right to information, the process of making the request and determining whether the Act applies can be an arduous task. This however, should not discourage you from seeking access to such documents as each case is assessed on its own merits and is dependant on the specific circumstances surrounding your application.

More importantly, you may need to seek access to your records because those records provide evidence necessary to pursue your rights in a legal proceeding or carry other evidentiary value.

If you want to access your records or information held concerning you, you may wish to obtain legal advice to determine what your rights to information and documents are and whether you are able to make a request through the Freedom of Information Act.

Please note that this article is not intended to be legal advice and specific advice should be obtained for your individual circumstances.

For further information regarding Freedom of Information or other legal enquiries, please contact Berrigan Doube Lawyers.