Searching for documents

This guideline explains how agencies1 can search for documents in response to valid access applications under the Right to Information Act 2009 (RTI Act) and the Information Privacy Act 2009 (Qld) (IP Act).  It also outlines how to keep records of those searches, which will be important if the agency’s decision is reviewed.

Recommended approach

When an agency receives a valid access application the decision maker must make inquiries with the relevant business units about the existence of documents within the scope of the application.2 There are various measures an agency can take to ensure that reasonable and thorough searches for documents are conducted and properly recorded.

Keeping accurate records

Written records of all searches should be kept on file to show that all reasonable steps were taken to locate the documents.  This guideline’s appendices contain templates to assist decision makers with search process record keeping:

Charging for time spent searching

Processing charges associated with applications made under the RTI Act can include the time taken to search and retrieve relevant documents.3

Informing the applicant

A decision notice should contain detailed information about the searches.  Providing details of searches, for example the names of business units, databases or email accounts searched and if necessary a short explanation of their relevance to the scope of the access application, helps applicants to fully understand the extent of searches undertaken and, if relevant, the reasons why any documents cannot be located.4

Specific searches

Searches of backup systems

Searches of a backup system are only mandatory in the circumstances set out in section 52(2) of the RTI Act5. In all other cases, they are not required unless the agency considers the search appropriate6.

Electronic devices/email accounts

Where an agency has a ‘bring your own device’ policy, allowing agency officers to use their own devices for agency business, it will be particularly important to ensure those devices are captured in any search requests.

Where agency policies specifically allow the use of private email accounts for agency business, for example where officers are travelling or working from home, decision makers may need to consider accounting for this in their search processes. For more information see Online and One Your Phone.

Off-site storage

Documents stored off-site remain documents of an agency and must be retrieved if they are in scope of an application.

State Archives

If an in-scope document has been stored at Queensland State Archives it must be retrieved and processed, unless it is no longer in the control of the agency, for example if it has passed into the open access period under the Public Records Act 2002 (Qld) (PR Act).

When are searches not required?

Searches for documents will not be required in some circumstances. For example, searches are not necessary:

  • when it is appropriate to neither confirm nor deny the existence of documents under section 55 of the RTI Act—for more information see Neither Confirm nor Deny; or
  • where an agency refuses to deal with an application under section 40 of the RTI Act—for more information see Refusal to Deal-all documents exempt.

Retention and disposal of public records

The PR Actsets out legislative requirements for the creation, retention and disposal of public records.7 Where an agency cannot locate documents sought in an access application, the decision maker should determine whether the documents have been destroyed under an approved schedule.  If the records have been destroyed under an approved schedule, this needs to be set out in the reasons for decision.

Where documents cannot be located

Section 47(3)(e) of the RTI Act provides that an agency can refuse access to a document that is nonexistent or unlocatable as mentioned in section 52.  For more information see Documents nonexistent or unlocatable.


  • 1 In this guideline, references to an agency include a Minister, unless otherwise specified. If the application is to a Minister, the threshold question would be whether dealing with the application would interfere substantially and unreasonably with the performance by the Minister of their functions (see section 41(1)(b) of the RTI Act).
  • 2 OIC’s guideline: What is the right of access in the RTI Act may assist officers who are unfamiliar with the requirements of the RTI Act and IP Act.
  • 3 As set out in section 56 of the RTI Act. Also see OIC’s guideline: Fees and charges.
  • 4 Re Betfair Pty Ltd and Department of the Attorney General [2007] WAICmr 7.
  • 5 Section 52(2) states that searches are only required where the document in question is a prescribed document as defined in section 52(4) of the RTI Act.
  • 6 Section 29 of the RTI Act.
  • 7 The Queensland State Archivist issues Information Standards, guidelines, Public Records Briefs, and retention and disposal schedules relating to management and disposal of public records. The current versions of Information Standards can be accessed through the Queensland Government Chief Information Office's website www.qgcio.qld.gov.au. The other listed documents can be accessed on Queensland State Archives' website www.archives.qld.gov.au.

Current as at: November 5, 2018