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‘BQ3’ and Department of Health and Human Services (Freedom of Information) [2020] VICmr 155 (15 June 2020)

Date of decision:15 June 2020
Applicant:'BQ3'
Agency:Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS)
Citation:'BQ3' and Department of Health and Human Services (Freedom of Information) [2020] VICmr 155 (15 June 2020)
Headnote:FREEDOM OF INFORMATION – Child Protection documents – refusal to process an FOI request – prejudice proper administration of the law – prohibited disclosure of confidential information – secrecy provision
Sections in the FOI Act:25A(5), 31(1)(a), 31(1)(c), 38
Download this file:BQ3 and Department of Health and Human Services Freedom of Information 2020 VICmr 155 15 June 2020 - PDF (233 KB)

All references to legislation in this document are to the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Vic) (FOI Act) unless otherwise stated.

Notice of Decision

I have conducted a review under section 49F of the Agency’s decision to refuse access to documents requested by the Applicant under the FOI Act.

I am satisfied the requirements for the application of section 25A(5) are met in that all documents to which the Applicant seeks access, should any exist, would be exempt in full.

Accordingly, I have decided to refuse to grant access to the requested documents in accordance with the Applicant’s request under section 25A(5).

My reasons for decision follow.

Joanne Kummrow

Public Access Deputy Commissioner

15 June 2020


Reasons for Decision

Background to review

  1. The Applicant made a request to the Agency for access to the Child Protection documents in relation to their child.
  2. The Agency refused to grant access to documents, should any exist, in accordance with the Applicant’s request under section 25A(5).
  3. In refusing to grant access to documents under section 25A(5), the Agency determined any documents, should any exist, would be exempt under sections 31(1)(a), 31(1)(c), 33(1), 35(1)(b) and 38. In relation to section 38, the Agency relied upon the confidentiality provisions under the Children Youth and Families Act 2005 (Vic) (CYF Act).
  4. The Agency’s reasons for decision are set out in its decision letter dated [date].

Review

  1. The Applicant sought review by the Information Commissioner under section 49A(1) of the Agency’s decision to refuse access.
  2. The Applicant and the Agency were invited to make a written submission under section 49H(2) in relation to the review.
  3. I have considered all communications and submissions received from the parties, including:
    1. the Agency’s decision on the FOI request dated [date];
    2. information provided with the Applicant’s review application;
    3. the Agency’s submission dated [date];
    4. the Applicant’s submissions dated [two dates specified]; and
    5. all communication between OVIC staff, the Applicant and the Agency.
  1. In undertaking my review, I have had regard to the object of the FOI Act, which is to create a general right of access to information in the possession of the Government or other public bodies, limited only by exceptions and exemptions necessary to protect essential public interests, privacy and business affairs.

Review of section 25A(5) – refusal to grant access to documents

  1. Section 25A(5) allows an agency to refuse to grant access to documents in accordance with an FOI request:
    1. if it is apparent from the nature of the request all documents sought would be exempt under the FOI Act; and
    2. where it is not possible to provide the applicant with an edited copy of the documents with exempt information deleted, or it is clear the applicant does not seek an edited copy of the documents.
  2. Importantly, an agency is not required to identify any or all documents relevant to a request or to specify any relevant exemption under which a document would be exempt.
  3. The refusal power under section 25A(5) is ‘carefully circumscribed’.[1] Therefore, I must be satisfied the following three requirements are met, which limit its application:
    1. First, the exempt nature of the documents sought must be objectively apparent from terms of the applicant’s request. The ‘nature’ of a documents refers to their inherent or essential quality or character.
    2. Second, it must be apparent from the terms of the applicant‘s request that all documents relevant to the request would be exempt.
    3. Third, it must be apparent from:
      1. the nature of the documents, as described in the applicant’s request, that no obligation would arise under section 25 for the agency to grant access to an edited copy of a document with exempt or irrelevant information deleted; or
      2. the applicant’s request, or through consultation with the applicant, they do not seek access to an edited copy of a document.

What is the essential character of the documents requested?

  1. In its submission, the Agency states:

The documents described in the applicant’s request are child protection documents. Child protection documents contain confidential information which is obtained both voluntarily and where required by law. Even disclosure of templates would reveal investigation methods, typical sources of information used to verify allegations and processes followed by child protection practitioners.

Notification details are the basis of the department’s involvement with the child and these details will be paraphrased and referred to many times throughout the child protection records. The types of records likely to fall in the cope with the applicant’s request would generally include intake and closure records, case notes and other document s detailing child protection’s interactions with family members, professional and/or community members involved with the family (for example, the child’s extended family, doctor or childcare service), as well as analysis and rationales prepared by departmental workers assessing the child’s safety and risk. Depending on the outcome of the intake and investigation process, the records could also include documents generated from court proceedings and the placement of a child into alternate care.

Child protection information is only disclosed following careful consideration by a qualified child protection practitioner familiar with a particular case. The child in this matter is the client of the department and therefore, the child protection records are in the child’s name.

  1. Child Protection documents come into existence when the Agency is notified, or otherwise becomes aware of a child who is at risk of harm, wellbeing or other safety concerns. The CYF Act provides for receipt by the Agency of voluntary information reports from any person and mandatory reporting by persons in certain professions specified in the CYF Act.
  2. Parliament has determined strict parameters apply to what information can be disclosed in relation to Child Protection matters, including a prohibition on identifying a person who notifies the Agency about any child protection concerns (a notifier) and any subsequent Agency investigations into or action taken to address any concerns. The CYF Act also prohibits disclosure of any information likely to lead to the identification of a notifier, except in certain limited circumstances where disclosure is authorised.
  3. I accept Child Protection documents are in the name of the client to whom they relate. The involvement of Child Protection concerns the care provided to a child who is, has been or may become a client of the Agency.
  4. Accordingly, I am satisfied the essential quality of the documents, as described by the Applicant’s request, should any exist, would be documents relating to the Applicant’s child and any involvement with or by Child Protection.

 Would all the documents requested, as described by the Applicant in their request, be exempt?

  1. As detailed above, in refusing access to documents under section 25A(5), the Agency determined
    the documents, should any exist, would be exempt under sections 31(1)(a), 31(1)(c), 33(1), 35(1)(b) and 38.
  2. In its submission, the Agency clarified its position that any relevant documents would be exempt in full under sections 31(1)(a), 33(1) and in part under sections 31(1)(c), 35(1)(b) and 38.
  3. In relation to section 38, the Agency relies upon confidentiality provisions under the CYF Act that relate to notifications made to and investigation documents created or obtained by Child Protection. These are discussed in more detail below.

Section 31 – Law enforcement documents

  1. Sections 31(1)(a) and 31(1)(c) provide:

31     Law enforcement documents

(1)     Subject to this section, a document is an exempt document if its disclosure under this Act would, or would be reasonably likely to –

(a)       prejudice the investigation of a breach or possible breach of the law or prejudice the proper administration of the law in a particular instance;

(c)        disclose or enable a person to ascertain, the identity of a confidential source of information in relation to the enforcement or administration of the law.

  1. ‘Reasonably likely’ means there is a real chance of an event occurring; it is not fanciful or remote.[2]
  2. ‘Prejudice’ means to hinder, impair or undermine and includes actual prejudice as well as impending prejudice.[3]
  3. ‘In a particular instance’ does not require a single specific investigation. This phrase can encompass specific, identified aspects of the law, the administration of the law or an investigation of a breach or potential breach of the law.[4]
  4. Section 31(1)(a) may apply in relation to either a particular investigation, or the enforcement or proper administration of the law more generally.
  5. I accept the Agency’s submission:

…any documents in existence would have been created as a result of protective concerns being raised for the applicant’s child and the investigative process that followed. Therefore, all documents may relate to the investigation of a breach or potential breach of the law.

  1. In relation to whether disclosure would be reasonably likely to prejudice the investigation of a breach or possible breach of the law, the Agency submits:

Disclosure of the documents to the applicant would be reasonably likely to prejudice child protection’s investigation of any current or future breaches of the CYF Act relating to the child. If notification or investigation information becomes known to a person who was responsible for the care of a child, committed a crime against a child, or was in breach of a Child Protection or Intervention Order, that person would know the information that the department has obtained. It would make clear what is known to the department and also what evidence may lead to future investigation or what evidence, if any, has not yet been uncovered or provided to the department. A person could use that information to avoid further child protection involvement.

As outlined above, the department must be able to properly investigate breaches or possible breaches of the law and administer and enforce the law in regards to child protection cases. Therefore, it is in the best interests of children that the department is able to carry out these obligations.

  1. In relation to whether release of Child Protection documents would be reasonably likely to prejudice the Agency’s enforcement of the CYF Act, the Agency submits:

The child protection process is largely initiated by notifications, without which the department could not fulfil its duty to protect children. Notifications are essential to ensure children at risk are protected and are a fundamental source of information to facilitate the proper administration of the CYF Act. If notification details were disclosed, particularly to the person about whom the notification was made, it is highly likely that people would be reluctant to make notifications in the future. Disclosure of notifier details would impact the department’s ability to obtain similar information in future, which would seriously prejudice the department’s ability to enforce and administer the CYF Act. As noted above, notification details would be contained within the documents sought by the applicant.

Once a notification is made, it triggers a number of processes that are administered and enforced under the CYF Act, such as investigations and assessments. The department submits that it is consistent with the authorities to find that those activities do form part of the administration or enforcement of the law for the purposes of section 31(1)(a) of the Act. For example, the decision of Anderson v Community Services Victoria[5] found that the Children and Young Person’s Act 1989 constitutes part of the administration of the law and as such, documents disclosing the identity of a confidential source could not be disclosed. The CYF Act replaced the Children and Young Person’s Act 1989 in 2005. In addition, in RFJ v Victoria Police FOI Division[6] the Tribunal held that disclosure of a collection of investigation documents would be reasonably likely to prejudice both an investigation and the enforcement of the law in respect of the matters subject to investigation.

Should certain information be released there is also a risk that methods and processes employed by the department during child protection investigations would be exposed. This would impede the department’s ability to properly administer the various obligations and duties imposed pursuant to the CYF Act.

The department submits that the best interests and welfare of children outweigh the applicant’s interest in obtaining the documents in this instance.

  1. I am satisfied any documents falling within the terms of the Applicant’s request, should any exist, would have been prepared in the course of and for the purpose of the Agency carrying out its Child Protection functions under the CYF Act. This role includes the type of monitoring and enforcement activities with which section 31(1)(a) is concerned.
  2. The circumstances of Child Protection investigations and proceedings are highly confidential. I am satisfied any information obtained from the Agency from third parties during the course of an investigation would have been provided with an expectation of strict confidentiality. I am of the view documents falling in the scope of the Applicant’s request would contain information that identified various individuals who, either directly or indirectly, provided information to Child Protection in confidential circumstances and in relation to the Agency’s enforcement and administration of the CYF Act. Accordingly, I am satisfied such information would be exempt from release under section 31(1)(c). In my view, as discussed below, this information would also be exempt under section 38.
  3. The disclosure of this material would, in my view, impair the effectiveness of the Agency’s ability to administer Child Protection services in the future. This includes the disclosure of any notifier named in a Child Protection document, any information provided in confidence by a notifier or other person and any information about the assessments and decisions made Agency officers.
  4. I acknowledge the Applicant’s personal interest in obtaining the documents sought in their FOI request. However, the nature and purpose of the Child Protection scheme is of such importance to the protection and welfare of children, that Parliament has determined strict parameters apply to what information can be released in relation to Child Protection matters. This includes the names and identities of those who notify the Agency about child protection concerns and any subsequent Agency investigations into or action taken to address any concerns. Such parameters are set out in, and comprehensively regulated under the CYF Act.
  5. Accordingly, on the information before me and given the nature of the requested documents, I am satisfied the requested documents, should any exist, would be exempt under sections 31(1)(a) and 31(1)(c).

Section 38 – Documents to which secrecy or confidentiality provisions apply

  1. A document is exempt under section 38 if:
    1. there is an enactment in force;
    2. that applies specifically to the kind of information contained in the documents requested by an applicant; and
    3. the enactment must prohibit persons, referred to in the enactment, from disclosing specific kinds of information whether absolutely or subject to exceptions or qualifications.
  2. For section 38 to apply to an enactment, it must be formulated with such precision that it specifies the actual information sought to be withheld.
  3. The Agency relies on section 38 in conjunction with sections 41, 191(1) and 209(1) of the CYF Act and submits:

Sections 41, 191 and 209 of the CYF Act prohibit any individual from disclosing the identity, or any information likely to lead to the identification of, a notifier/reporter, or person who gave information in confidence to the department during the investigation of the report. This includes not only the report or record of confidential information itself but also any subsequent documents created containing details of the report or confidential information. The substantial financial penalty associated with these provisions highlights the legislature’s intention that this information should remain protected.

  1. Section 41 of the CYF Act provides

41     Identity of reporter or referrer confidential

 (1)      If a report is made to the Secretary under section 28 or 29, a person (other than the person who made it) must not disclose to any person other than the Secretary or a community-based child and family service –

(a)     The name of the person who made the report; and

(b)     Any information that is likely to lead to the identification of the person who made the report

Penalty: 60 penalty units.

(1A)     If a referral is made to a community-based child and family service under section 31 or 32, a person (other than the person who made it) must not disclose to any person other than the Secretary or a community-based child and family service –

(a)     The name of the person who made the referral; and

(b)     Any information that is likely to lead to the identification of the person who made the referral.

Penalty: 60 penalty units.

(2)      Subsections (1) and (1A) do not apply if the person who made the report or referral –

(a)     Gives written consent to the Secretary; or

(b)     Gives written or oral consent to the community based child and family service.

(3)       To avoid any doubt, the name of a person who made a report or who made a referral may shared between

(a)     The Secretary and any community-based child and family service; and

(b)     A community-based child and family service and any other community-based child and family service.

  1. Section 191 of the CYF Act provides:

191     Confidentiality  

(1)       If a report referred to in section 190(1) is made, a person (other than the person who made it or a person acting with the written consent of the person who made it) must not disclose to any person other than a protective intervener or a community-based child and family service in accordance with subsection.

(a)     The name of the person who made the report; or

(b)     Any information that is likely to lead to the identification of the person who made the report

Penalty: 10 penalty units

(2)       Subsection (1) does not apply to a disclosure made to a court or tribunal in accordance with section 190.

(3)       Subsection (1) does not apply to a disclosure to the Therapeutic Treatment Board of the name or information leading to the identification of a police officer who made a report under section 185.

(4)       If a report is made to the Secretary under section 183 or 184, the information referred to in subsection (1) may be disclosed to a community-based child and family service if –

(a)     The Secretary has made a determination under section 187(1)(c) in respect of the report; and

(b)     The matter is referred to the community-based child and family service under section 30.

(5)       A community-based child and family service to which information referred to in subsection (1) is disclosed must not disclose that information to any other person except in accordance with this Part.

Penalty: 60 penalty units

  1. Section 190(1) of the CYF Act refers to reports made under section 183 (a report to a ‘protective intervener’ on reasonable grounds a child is in need of protection); section 184 (a mandatory report to the Secretary on reasonable grounds a child is in need of protection made by a person in the course of practising their profession or carrying out the duties their office, position or employment); reports determined to be a protective intervention report under section 34, and reports under section 185 a child is in need of therapeutic treatment.
  2. ‘Protective intervener’ is defined in section 181 of the CYF Act as ‘the Secretary’ [of the Agency] and ‘all police officers’.
  3. Section 209 of the CYF Act provides:

209     Confidentiality

(1)     A protective intervener must not disclose to any person, other than to another protective intervener or to a person in connection with a court proceeding or to a person in connection with a review by the [Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal] VCAT—

(a)     the name of a person who gave information in confidence to a protective intervener during the course of the investigation of the subject-matter of a protective intervention report; or

(b)     any information that is likely to lead to the identification of a person referred to in paragraph (a)—

without the written consent of the person referred to in paragraph (a) authorisation by the Secretary.

Penalty: 10 penalty units

(2)       The Secretary may only authorise the disclosure of information to a person under subsection (1) if the Secretary believes on reasonable grounds that the disclosure is necessary to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the child.

(3)      In this section court proceeding includes a proceeding in the Family Court of Australia.

  1. In summary, sections 41, 191(1) and 209(1) of the CYF Act prohibit the disclosure of the name of a person who provided child protection information to the Agency, as well as any information likely to lead to their identification, except in certain authorised circumstances. Unauthorised disclosure of such information is an offence subject to penalties under the CYF Act.
  2. The unauthorised disclosure of such information is an offence subject to penalties under the CYF Act. The financial penalties associated with these confidentiality provisions highlight Parliament’s intention this information be protection and should not be disclosed.
  3. I am satisfied the relevant sections of the CYF Act prohibit disclosure of the identity, or any information likely to lead to the identification of a notifier/reporter or person who gives or has given information in confidence to the Agency for Child Protection purposes. This includes not only the report or record of confidential information itself, but also any subsequent documents created containing details of the report or associated confidential information.
  4. Accordingly, I am satisfied:
    1. the CYF Act is an enactment in force, for the purposes of section 38 of the FOI Act;
    2. the documents sought by the Applicant, should any exist, would contain specific information the disclosure of which is prohibited under sections 41,191(1) and 209(1) of the CYF Act;
    3. Agency officers are prohibited from disclosing documents that would fall within the terms of the Applicant’s request; and
    4. none of the authorised exceptions for disclosure referred to in sections 41,191 and 209 of the CYF Act apply in this case.
  5. Accordingly, on the information before me and having considered the terms of the Applicant’s request, I am satisfied any relevant documents, should any exist, would contain information exempt under section 38 of the FOI Act in conjunction with sections 41, 191(1) and 209(1) of the CYF Act.

Deletion of exempt or irrelevant information

  1. Section 25 requires an agency to grant access to an edited copy of a document when it is practicable to delete exempt or irrelevant information and the applicant agrees to receiving such a copy.
  2. Determining what is ‘practicable’ requires consideration of the effort and editing involved in making the deletions ‘from a resources point of view’[7] and the effectiveness of the deletions. Where deletions would render a document meaningless, they are not ‘practicable’, and release of the document is not required under section 25.[8]
  3. During the review, the Applicant confirmed they do not agree to receiving an edited copy of the documents with exempt or irrelevant information deleted in accordance with section 25. In any case, having considered the nature of the requested documents, I am satisfied that deleting all exempt information in the documents, should any exist, would render them meaningless.

Other exemptions – sections 31(1)(c), 33(1) and 35(1)(b)

  1. The Agency also relies on the exemptions under sections 33(1) and 35(1)(b). However, as I am satisfied any documents, should they exist, would be exempt in full under sections 31(1)(a), 31(1)(c) and 38, it is not necessary for me to consider the application of these additional exemptions.

Conclusion

  1. On the information before me, I am satisfied the following requirements for the application of section 25A(5) are met:
    1. the essential quality or character of the documents, as described in the Application’s request, should any exist, would be Child Protection documents, including, documents relating to a Child Protection notification and/or investigation concerning the Applicant and their child;
    2. given the nature of the requested documents, I am satisfied any relevant documents, should any exist, would be exempt under sections 31(1)(a), 31(1)(c) and 38 of the FOI Act in conjunction with sections 41, 191(1) and 209(1) of the CYF Act; and
    3. it is not practicable to delete exempt information in the documents in accordance with section 25, as to do would render them meaningless.
  2. Accordingly, I have decided to refuse to grant access to the requested documents in accordance with the Applicant’s request under section 25A(5).

Review rights

  1. If the Applicant is not satisfied with my decision, they are entitled to apply to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) for it to be reviewed.[9]
  2. The Applicant may apply to VCAT for a review up to 60 days from the date they are given this Notice of Decision.[10]
  3. Information about how to apply to VCAT is available at www.vcat.vic.gov.au. Alternatively, VCAT may be contacted by email at admin@vcat.vic.gov.au or by telephone on 1300 018 228.
  4. The Agency is required to notify the Information Commissioner in writing as soon as practicable if either party applies to VCAT for a review of my decision.[11]
  5. If a review application is made to VCAT, my decision will be subject to any VCAT determination.

Endnotes

[1] Knight v Corrections Victoria [2010] VSC 338 at [37].

[2] Bergman v Department of Justice Freedom of Information Officer [2012] VCAT 363 at [65], quoting Binnie v Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs [1989] VR 836.

[3] Ibid, Bergman at [66], referring to Sobh v Police Force of Victoria [1994] VicRp 2; [1994] 1 VR 41 (Nathan J) at [55].

[4] Cichello v Department of Justice (Review and Regulation) [2014] VCAT 340 at [24].

[5] (1993) 47 FOI Review 66.

[6] [2013] VCAT 1267.

[7] Mickelburough v Victoria Police (General) [2009] VCAT 2786 at [31]; The Herald and Weekly Times Pty Limited v The Office of the Premier (General) [2012] VCAT 967 at [82].

[8] Honeywood v Department of Human Services [2006] VCAT 2048 at [26]; RFJ v Victoria Police FOI Division (Review and Regulation) [2013] VCAT 1267 at [140] and [155].

[9] The Applicant in section 50(1)(b) and the Agency in section 50(3D).

[10] Section 52(5).

[11] Sections 50(3F) and (3FA).

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