An Act of Many Tools

December 17, 2020 - 11:29am

The Right to Information Act 2009 and Information Privacy Act 2009 (the Acts) create a right of access to information. The Acts recognise that this right is not absolute, allowing decision makers to refuse access where release would be contrary to the public interest. But the right is also subject to applicants making applications that:

  • allow agencies to understand what is being applied for; and
  • agencies can process with the resources available to them.

The Acts also recognise this, giving decision makers tools they can use to deal with applications that don’t meet these standards.

Scoping before processing

Where an application is unclear, very broad, hard to understand, or appears to capture huge numbers of documents, before jumping in to process it decision makers should ask: is the scope valid? It may be—an application isn’t invalid just because it’s large—but the possibility should be eliminated.

Applicants must describe what they are applying for clearly enough that decision makers can identify the documents being applied for, conduct searches, and make decisions. If an application isn’t clear, if the decision maker can’t understand what the applicant wants, then the application may not be valid.

If an application isn’t valid, the Act has a tool to deal with it—Noncompliant applications—one that allows applicants to clarify what they’re seeking. Decision makers need to use that tool. Trying to work out what an applicant wants without input from the applicant creates extra work for decision makers, who can wind up processing and making a decision on documents the applicant isn’t interested in—while missing the documents the applicant actually wants.

Refer to Assessing the Terms of an Access Application for more information.

It’s okay to SURD

Where an application is valid but very large, the agency may not be able to process it. The Acts specifically recognise that this can and will happen and provide a tool to manage it. It allows decision makers to stop the clock on the processing period and work with the applicant to reshape the application, rather than struggling to process overly large, overly burdensome applications that will substantially and unreasonably divert the agency’s resources.

Refer to Substantial and Unreasonable Diversion of Resources (SURD) for more information.

No split decisions, aka how not to manage applications

It may be tempting to try and get some documents out to an applicant while you finish the rest of their application, but you can’t. You can only make one access decision on an application.1 Don’t try and manage large applications by making a decision on some documents, then making a second decision on the rest of the documents. Once the first decision was made, the application—and your power to make decisions on it—was done.

The Acts give you tools to help manage cumbersome applications—make sure applications are valid, utilise the SURD process where appropriate, and ask for extra time if you need it—but don’t make split decisions on an application. No matter how good your intentions, it’s not provided for, or recognised, by the Acts.

1 Note: there is an exception for some healthcare decisions only. See Making healthcare decisions for more information.