Commonwealth's FOI laws: Provisions, challenges and practical advice

Holding Redlich


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To assist government departments and agencies to understand their key obligations in the FOI legislation.
Australia Government, Public Sector
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The Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Cth) (FOI Act) is a cornerstone of administrative law measures to promote governmental transparency and accountability. By understanding and fulfilling their obligations under the FOI Act, Australian government agencies and departments can enhance public trust and demonstrate a commitment to an open government. Following a recent review of the FOI Act's operation, this article aims to assist departments and agencies in understanding their key obligations and ensuring the objectives of the legislation are met.

Key provisions and mechanisms

Key provisions and mechanisms in the FOI Act include:

Right of access

  • Right to access information: The FOI Act provides the public with a right to access documents held by government agencies, including both physical and electronic records.

Agencies and ministers covered

  • Coverage: The FOI Act applies to Commonwealth agencies including departments, statutory authorities and government-owned corporations. Ministers are also subject to the FOI Act concerning documents related to their official duties.
  • Exclusions: Agencies exempt from the FOI Act include intelligence agencies and certain security bodies.


  • Absolute exemptions: Some documents are exempt from disclosure to protect national security, defence, international relations, personal privacy, commercial confidentiality and cabinet documents.
  • Conditional exemptions: Other documents may be conditionally exempt if their disclosure is against the public interest, involving a balancing test between transparency and harm.

Challenges with the Commonwealth FOI regime

On 7 December 2023, the Commonwealth Senate's Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee released its report, 'The operation of Commonwealth Freedom of Information laws' (Senate Report).

The Senate Report paints a picture of a Commonwealth FOI regime, facing significant resourcing issues with delays in Information Commissioner reviews and a need to streamline processes, for example those relating to vexatious litigants. We note the May 2024 budget announced an additional $5.6 million in funding in 2024-25 for the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC).

In summary, the Senate Report highlights the importance of the following aspects of the FOI Act:

  • balancing transparency and privacy
    • carefully balance the public's right to know against the need to protect sensitive information, including personal data. Exemptions under the FOI Act can be intricate, requiring a detailed understanding of various categories such as national security, personal privacy and commercial confidentiality. Further, the public interest test requires agencies to weigh the benefits of disclosure against potential adverse effects which can be difficult to quantify and assess
  • resource allocation
  • allocating adequate resources to handle FOI requests efficiently without compromising other agency functions. Agencies often face a high volume of FOI requests, which can strain resources. Efficiently managing these requests requires significant time, staff and technological resources
  • evolving legal landscape
  • keeping informed about changes in FOI legislation and case law to ensure ongoing compliance. The legal landscape surrounding the FOI Act is dynamic with regular updates from the OAIC, judicial interpretations and policy changes. Agencies must stay informed about these changes and adapt their procedures accordingly.

Best practices for compliance

Training and awareness

  • Staff training: Regularly train staff on FOI requirements, emphasising the importance of compliance and transparency.
  • Awareness campaigns: Promote a culture of openness and responsiveness within the agency through awareness campaigns and internal communications. Agencies should regularly consult the OAIC guidelines and adopt best practice for FOI administration. Adopting these practices can help mitigate risks and improve compliance.

Records management

  • Accurate records: Maintain accurate and comprehensive records to facilitate efficient FOI processing. For example, agencies must maintain an up-to-date disclosure log of documents released in response to FOI requests.
  • Policies and systems: Implement robust records management policies and systems, ensuring that documents are easily retrievable. The growing volume of electronic records presents both opportunities and challenges. While electronic systems can improve retrieval efficiency, they also require sophisticated management and security protocols.

Engagement with applicants

  • Clear communication: Clear and helpful communication to FOI applicants is essential. Agencies should assist applicants in framing their requests and provide explanations regarding any decisions or exemptions applied.
  • Responsive service: Ensure a responsive and helpful approach to handling requests and queries. Effectively managing applicants' expectations regarding timeframes, possible outcomes and any charges involved can help reduce misunderstandings and potential disputes.

Internal review and external oversight

  • Internal review: Establish an internal review process to handle appeals against FOI decisions, ensuring a fair and thorough review. Agencies must have clear procedures for handling internal reviews of FOI decisions. This includes providing detailed reasons for decisions, ensuring that reviews are conducted impartially and adhering to statutory timeframes.
  • External oversight: Agencies must cooperate fully with the OAIC during external reviews and investigations. This includes providing requested information promptly and implementing any recommendations or decisions made by the Commissioner.

This publication does not deal with every important topic or change in law and is not intended to be relied upon as a substitute for legal or other advice that may be relevant to the reader's specific circumstances. If you have found this publication of interest and would like to know more or wish to obtain legal advice relevant to your circumstances please contact one of the named individuals listed.

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