The Right to Information Act 20091 (Qld) (RTI Act) gives people the right to access documents in the possession or control of Queensland government agencies2. The RTI Act specifically allows parents to make applications on behalf of their children because, while children are permitted to make their own applications, they may lack the ability or capacity to do so.
Decision makers dealing with applications made by or on behalf of children will need to consider whether release of information would be in the best interests of the child. This may involve striking a balance between a number of factors such as the child’s wellbeing and wishes and the parent’s relationship with, or ability to care for, their child.
The RTI Act3 allows a child’s parent to make an application on a child’s behalf. Parent is the child’s mother, father, or a person exercising parental responsibility for the child. For an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander child a parent includes a person who, under Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander tradition, is regarded as a parent of the child.
A person who temporarily stands in the place of a parent is not a parent.4 Baby-sitters, short term foster carers, and school teachers are not a parent under the RTI Act.
A person who exercises parental responsibility for the child includes a person who is granted guardianship of the child under the Child Protection Act 1999 (Qld) or who otherwise exercises parental responsibility for the child under a decision or order of a federal court or a court of the State.5 This means other people, such as step-parents or informal kinship carers, may be able to establish that they exercise parental control, even if it is not as a result of guardianship or other court order.
The following documents may establish a person as a parent or person exercising parental control:
If an applicant is unable to provide any of the above documents, agencies should talk to the applicants about how they can demonstrate parental responsibility for the child. This is particularly important in the case of adoptions under Aboriginal tradition or Torres Strait Islander custom, or informal kinship care arrangements. Statutory declarations from other individuals who know the child and the person exercising parental control may be acceptable in some circumstances.
Decision makers will have to consider whether information within the scope of the application may be exempt from release, contrary to the public interest to release, or not releasable because it would be contrary to the best interests of the child.
Schedule 3 of the RTI Act6 contains information Parliament has decided it would be contrary to the public interest to disclose. This includes information the disclosure of which is prohibited by another Act7. The ones most likely to be relevant to an application by or for a child are:
If information is not exempt under one of the provisions in schedule 3 of the RTI Act, decision makers must consider if it is contrary to the public interest to release. They must identity relevant factors favouring disclosure and non-disclosure in schedule 4 of the RTI Act to determine whether or not the information should be disclosed.
Schedule 4, part 2 of the RTI Act contains the public interest factors favouring disclosure. Factors which may be of relevance to applications made by or for children include:
Schedule 4, part 3 of the RTI Act contains the public interest factors favouring non-disclosure. Factors which may be of particular relevance to applications made for children include:
Section 47(3)(c) of the RTI Act allows an agency to refuse access to the personal information of a child if it considers that disclosure would not be in the best interests of the child. This ground for refusing access is separate and in addition to refusal on the grounds that the information is exempt or contrary to the public interest. It applies whether the application is made by the child, or by a person acting on behalf of a child.
Often a parent’s interests align with their child’s interests, as the parent is acting with their child’s best interests in mind.8 However, there may be circumstances where the interests of the child are sufficiently different from that of the parent to warrant refusal of access on this ground.9
Under this section, agencies can delete section 47(3)(c) information if it is practicable to do so and must then give access to the document. The IP Act does not have an equivalent of section 75A of the RTI Act. This does not mean 47(3)(c) information cannot be deleted from IP Act application documents, agencies will simply need to be aware of the difference in the Acts.
Best interests of the child is not defined in the RTI Act10, however the RTI Act provides some guidance where the child has made the application. It requires decision makers to have regard to the child’s capacity to understand the information and the context in which it was recorded and make a mature judgment as to what might be in his or her best interests.
Some factors that have been identified in the family law context as relevant to the best interests of the child are:11
Courts have also recognised that ‘best interests’ is a multi-faceted test and incorporates the wellbeing of the child, all factors which will affect the future of the child; the happiness of the child, immediate welfare as well as matters relevant to the child’s healthy development; and includes not only material wealth or advantage but also emotional, spiritual and mental wellbeing.12 Wellbeing factors may include safety, protection, education, health, developmental considerations, attachments and relationships.
Other relevant considerations include the presence of conflict in the family, the relationship between the child and the agency holding the information, and the possibility that disclosure of the information may harm the child. Where there is disharmony between the parents or potential conflict of interest between parent and child, care should be exercised in giving parents access to records that contain the child’s private and sensitive information.
In Re Bradford and Director of Family Services; Commissioner, Australian Federal Police (Bradford)13 the applicant sought access under the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Cth) to various documents about herself and her four children, relating to child protection matters, that were held by the Director of Family Services.
President Curtis noted where there are child protection issues, disclosure may undermine the relationship between the child and the agency charged with the protection of children and as such may not be in the child’s best interests.
The RTI Act does not require a decision maker to take a child’s views into account when determining whether release is contrary to their best interests. International, national and state legislation and guidelines, however, specifically acknowledge the right of children and young people to participate in decisions about their own lives.14 Courts have acknowledged that parental controls over a child do not wholly disappear until the child reaches 18, but recognise that control diminishes gradually as the child’s capacity and maturity grows.15 There is no specific age at which this happens; this development depends on the individual child. In order to assess the best interests of a child, there may be circumstances in which a decision maker considers it appropriate to obtain the child’s view.16
If a child objects to the release of information to their parents or guardians, that fact will not in itself be enough to justify refusal, but it may be a significant factor for the decision maker to consider. The balance to be struck is between the child’s right to privacy on the one hand and on the other not creating unnecessary impediments to parents being able to effectively undertake their parental responsibilities.
Where access to personal information has been refused in response to an application for a child, other than for healthcare information,18 decision makers must consider whether it is consistent with the primary object of the legislation to give the applicant, or an intermediary a summary of the personal information. Conditions of use or disclosure may be included. The conditions of use or disclosure must be agreed between the decision maker and the intermediary (or applicant19), or between the decision maker, the intermediary and the applicant.
Summaries of personal information have in the past usually been issued where there is some concern about releasing documents in full because of third party personal information. This is usually in the context of confidential sources of information whose identity must be protected. The legislation makes provision for the protection of such confidential sources by requiring consultation with the confidential source and their agreement to the release of the summary. This may be a useful tool in the context where the information in question contains personal information of a parent who may be estranged from the requesting parent.
Decision makers should also note that the legislation requires that where an application is stated to be made for a child by the child’s parent and is for the child’s personal information then decision makers must have procedures in place to ensure that the information is not disclosed to anyone else.20
Current as at: June 5, 2017