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Thursday, June 05, 2014

The time and cost equation for AAT review of FOI matters

Jonathon Holmes in The Age yesterday bought the line that merits review by the AAT will help journalists obtain FOI access, in the words of ABC FOI Editor Michael McKinnon, more quickly, and more fairly. 

"We’re journalists, not historians. We need to know now” said McKinnon in drawing attention to the long and unacceptable delay in FOI review matters at the OAIC.

The Administrative Appeals Tribunal timeline may prove better than some achieved by the underfunded OAIC. After all $1.8m over four years, the sort of money the OAIC never saw, will be transferred to the Tribunal to assist with the processing of FOI reviews.

Will the "need to know now" cause get a boost in the coming new/old era with agencies reaching the correct decision more often and with fulsome embrace of spirit and intent of the legislation? You're more of an optimist than me if you think so given the absence of an FOI champion to maintain the effort to move culture change in the right direction, something that disappears with the abolition of the OAIC from 1 January 2015, and with AGD providing 'guidance' on the interpretation of the act.

 With a long or short queue, AAT processes aren't likely to be speedy in any event.

According to the AAT's 2012-13 Annual Report (a period when it had a limited FOI role) the tribunal's overall caseload performance target was 85% of matters to have their first conference within 13 weeks, and 60% of matters to progress to hearing within 40 weeks. (Table 3.8) 

The performance measures in the 2014--15 Portfolio Budget Statement are 75% of applications finalised by the AAT within 12 months of lodgement, 80% of matters finalised without a hearing.

Then there's the cost. According to the AAT in 2012-13 the cost (to the taxpayer) per matter that went all the way to an AAT decision was $16, 641.

The costs incurred in an AAT FOI review by the applicant who will be up for $816 (and due to rise by CPI on 1 July) for starters from 1 January, and the government agency involved in a matter is unknown.

 But some information about AAT costs generally is contained in the Draft Productivity Commission Report on Access to Justice. The mean cost to a party that brought proceedings regarding workplace compensation was just under $20,000 (median around $15 000). On the other side according to Comcare its average costs per case were $15,500 when matters were withdrawn, $23 000 when matters were resolved by consent, and $48,000 in matters that went to hearing.

Halve, quarter it for FOI if you like.

But  in time and cost the new FOI 'efficiencies' much loved by Attorney General Brandis are going to take a while for those who 'need to know now' or give or take in six months or so, and to cost the taxpayer and the citizen a pretty penny as well.

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