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Thursday, November 19, 2009

FOI and two Ombudsman

Annual reports released recently by the Commonwealth and South Australian Ombudsman both include information about Freedom of Information matters. Review of FOI complaints is part of a broad range of Ombudsman responsibilities. However as the reports reveal, FOI looms larger in the workload in SA.

The Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman Professor John McMillan received over 45000 approaches and complaints in total during the year, just over 200 or less than 0.5%, concerning FOI matters. 50% of the FOI work involved three agencies- Centrelink, Immigration and the Child Support Agency. Most complaints were about delay, fees and charges and poorly explained decisions.The report comments about failures to assist applicants and too literal reading of applications, both giving rise to avoidable user dissatisfaction. FOI rates one page (116) in the report. Unlike coverage of most other investigatory functions there are no case studies.

South Australian Ombudsman Richard Bingham reports his office considered 2543 cases in total, including 221 or about 8%, and more than his Commonwealth counterpart, concerning FOI. (The total number of approaches to the Office are estimated at around 12000). The FOI chapter of the report runs to 24 pages, consisting mainly of case studies and comments about matters investigated. These include an ongoing issue whether the Legal Practitioners Conduct Board is subject to the Act and whether Board documents attract legal professional privilege (an issue before the District Court); the status of information about contractual arrangements and work performance of a former chief executive of a rural health service; commercial in confidence information held by the Department of Health (also before the District Court); and several cases involving the Cabinet documents exemption including the Ombudsman's observation that Clause 1(1)(e) which exempts information concerning any deliberation or decision of Cabinet is too widely drawn. On this the Ombudsman says:
As a final comment, I note that interstate and Commonwealth FOI legislation apart from NSW, does not have such a broad exemption as clause 1(1)(e). I consider that an exemption worded to exempt access to documents revealing rather than concerning a decision or deliberation of Cabinet would be more appropriate, and would protect Cabinet confidentiality and also conform to the objectives of the FOI.
The NSW Government Information (Public Access) Act to commence early in 2010 contains a presumption of an overriding public interest against disclosure of a document prepared after a Cabinet deliberation or decision that would "reveal or tend to reveal information concerning any of those deliberations or decisions" (Clause 1 Schedule1). This is an improvement on Clause 1(1)(e) in Schedule 1 of the FOI Act. The exemption for disclosure of information concerning any deliberation or decision of Cabinet was interpreted by the NSW Administrative Decisions Tribunal as broad enough to cover a document that predated cabinet consideration of a matter, something the new formulation would rule out.

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