Stewart and Department of Transport
(1993 S0027, 9 December 1993)
This case includes an extensive survey of Commonwealth, Victorian and New South Wales case law on the meaning of the phrase "personal affairs of a person", which, until 1991, appeared in the Commonwealth FOI Act, and which still appears in the Victorian and New South Wales freedom of information legislation.
The decision notes that the ambit of the phrase "personal affairs of a person" (and relevant variations thereof) is important in four significant contexts in the Queensland FOI Act, namely -
i) the charging regime embodied in s.29(2) of the FOI Act and sections 6 and 7 of Freedom of Information Regulation 1992 Qld.
ii) the s.44 exemption for "matter affecting personal affairs".
iii) the right conferred by s.53 of the FOI Act to seek amendment of information relating to a person's personal affairs, if the information is inaccurate, incomplete, out of date, or misleading.
iv) s.6 of the FOI Act, which permits a modification of the ordinary approach to the application of some exemption provisions in circumstances where an applicant is seeking access to information which relates to the applicant's personal affairs.
The Information Commissioner decided that the phrase "personal affairs of a person" (and relevant variations thereof) should be interpreted as having a consistent meaning in the different contexts in which it appears in the FOI Act.
The Information Commissioner decided that the phrase should be interpreted consistently with decisions of the Federal Court of Australia which had interpreted the equivalent phrase which appeared in the Commonwealth FOI Act until 1991; in the Commissioner's opinion, the phrase "personal affairs" means affairs of or relating to the private aspects of a person's life.
Recognising that there was still a degree of vagueness about the ambit of the phrase, the Information Commissioner set out examples of categories of information which clearly fall within the meaning of the phrase "personal affairs of a person", and categories of information which ordinarily fall outside the meaning of that phrase. The Information Commissioner also addressed some recurring issues in what were referred to as the "grey area" within the ambit of the phrase. The Information Commissioner indicated that when dealing with difficult questions of characterising matter as personal affairs matter or not, i.e., when working within the grey area at the edges of the ambit of the phrase, it was appropriate to draw on principles from privacy law in the manner explained in paragraph 76 of the Commissioner's reasons for decision.