Event Recap: Information Access Series – Assisting and engaging with FOI applicants under section 17 of the Freedom of Information Act 1982
If you’re an FOI officer, you’re probably generally aware that you have a duty under section 17 of the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Vic) (FOI Act) to help applicants make a valid request. And that includes consulting with them before you close the request. But what does that look like in practice and what happens if the applicant makes a complaint about the way you handled the request?
The Information Access Series seminar on Tuesday, 30 April 2019 focused on assisting and engaging with FOI applicants under section 17 of the FOI Act and OVIC’s complaint handling process. The session also provided a brief update on the publication of OVIC’s notices of decision.
Section 17 – what a valid request is and the duty to assist
During the seminar, one of OVIC’s Senior Case Managers walked us through section 17 of the FOI Act, starting with section 17(2) which outlines the requirements for a valid FOI request. Indeed, many FOI officers would be all too familiar with the valid request mantra:
your request must be made in writing;
your request must clearly describe the documents sought; and
your request must include the application fee (or a request for a fee waiver).
So, that’s what a valid request looks like. But what about when the request isn’t quite there?
Section 17(3) outlines that agencies (or Ministers as the case may be) have to help applicants with their requests. Similarly, section 17(4) recognises that an agency can’t simply close off a request because it hasn’t met the requirements of section 17(2). Rather, the agency has to consult with the applicant with the aim of assisting them to make a valid request.
The seminar provided some practical tips regarding what you can do to assist and engage with applicants under section 17, including:
- talk to the applicant early if you’re not sure what their request is looking for;
- explain how documents are managed at your agency – for example, applicants may not know what your agency calls certain documents;
- don’t interpret requests too narrowly – for example, don’t get stuck on what particular documents are called; if you understand what the applicant is looking for and can locate the relevant document then it’s likely the request is clear enough;
- give an applicant more than one chance to clarify their request – although this does not mean infinite attempts (particularly if the applicant is being obstructive).
Complaints about the handling of requests can happen
OVIC’s Acting Assistant Commissioner – Public Access Resolutions discussed complaints regarding the handling of FOI requests and how OVIC manages them.
During a complaint, OVIC will typically ask for more information from both the complainant and the agency. This is so that OVIC can get a better understanding of the whole picture of the complaint, including the substance of the complaint, what outcome the complainant is hoping to achieve and how the complaint may be resolved.
OVIC does not act as an advocate for either party during a complaint. Instead, OVIC communicates information between the complainant and the agency to try and resolve the complaint informally.
Thank you to everyone who attended the seminar. If you were not able to make it, or wish to watch it again, the recording of the session is available on OVIC’s Periscope channel. You can also view the slides from the session here.
If you have any feedback on the seminar, or wish to propose a topic, please contact OVIC at firstname.lastname@example.org.