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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

"Boring administrative records" become FOI battleground

The Sydney Morning Herald today “Much ado about deadly dull documents” - reports on the Attorney General’s/Crown Solicitor’s unsuccessful attempt in the ADT Appeal Panel to argue the exempt status of a letter requesting a drainage diagram from Sydney Water, a planning certificate from Strathfield Council and two request forms for land title searches. We commented on this matter on 23 May.

In this case the Office that provides legal services to other state government agencies felt compelled to argue narrow legal issues concerning innocuous documents when it was on the receiving end of an FOI application. There was a point perhaps in arguing the toss before the Tribunal when 88 documents were in dispute. But when they lost on 4 of them – those mentioned above – someone appears to have concluded that important adverse consequences would flow from the decision and that more public money should be thrown at seeking to protect them by taking the matter to the Appeal Panel.

In the end the Appeal Panel found the documents not exempt. Perhaps the agency claims some sort of pyrrhic victory, hang the expense.

Why these 4 documents were not initially released or released on internal review is a mystery given the following guidance that appears in the Government’s FOI Procedure Manual (page 143) and is stated policy for all state government agencies:
“Exemptions should be claimed only where it is necessary to protect an important interest and to do so in any other way which involves release of the documents is not possible (policy)”.
This 1994 direction sought to encourage disclosure not technical legal arguments.

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