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FOI and coronavirus (COVID-19) FAQs

Introduction

Due to the coronavirus (COVID-19), many Victorian government agencies have enacted business continuity plans and are working remotely. Working remotely can be a challenge when administering the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Vic) (FOI Act), however agencies must continue to meet their statutory obligations under the FOI Act.

The Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner (OVIC) understands these unique times require flexibility when processing freedom of information (FOI) requests, as there are likely to be delays in processing new and existing requests.

Frontline agencies such as public health service providers, emergency service providers and other agencies whose FOI practitioners are deployed to assist the agency or other agencies with other duties may be particularly affected by delays in processing FOI requests.

OVIC has developed frequently asked questions (FAQs) for members of the public who intend to make an FOI request, or have made an FOI request.

FOI and coronavirus (COVID-19) FAQs for the public

These are unprecedented times, with many Victorian agencies working remotely. Many agencies have limited or no access to Australia Post mail, and instead will rely heavily on electronic forms of communication (such as email) and payment of application fees and access charges (such as credit card).

OVIC encourages agencies and applicants to take a flexible and practical approach to managing requests.

If possible, try to make your FOI request electronically (for example, by email or online) so the agency can look at your request sooner. Keep in mind that some documents you would like to request access to may not currently be accessible by the agency. For example, many agencies cannot access hard copy documents presently while working remotely.

Similarly, if you’re not sure how to pay the application fee, talk to the agency about any electronic payment methods it offers.

These are unprecedented times, with many Victorian agencies working remotely and some staff diverted from their usual duties to assist their agency or other agencies. For some, this may mean limited access to the agency’s documents. For example, hard copy documents may not be accessible at all.

OVIC encourages agencies and applicants to take a flexible and practical approach to managing requests. Communicate with the agency and work together to find an outcome that works.

For example, the agency may ask you to narrow the scope of your request so it can focus on the documents it does have access to, so it can provide you with a decision sooner. The agency may also invite you to withdraw your request entirely. You can always make another request at a later date for the document or documents that cannot be currently accessed.

Alternatively, the agency may ask you to agree to an extension of time to process your request. This is so that the agency can comply with the statutory timeframe under the FOI Act, and means you will receive a decision on the whole request at a later date.

These are unprecedented times, with many Victorian agencies working remotely and some staff diverted from their usual duties to assist their agency or other agencies. Many agencies will likely experience delays in processing requests.

OVIC encourages agencies and applicants to take a flexible and practical approach to managing requests. Communicate with the agency and work together to find an outcome that works.

For example, the agency may ask if you would like to continue with your request, given the time it anticipates it will take to process it. At this time, you may consider withdrawing your request, and making it again at a later date.

Alternatively, the agency may ask you to agree to an extension of time to process your request. This is so that the agency can comply with the statutory timeframe under the FOI Act, and means you will receive a decision on the request at a later date.

If you do not wish to withdraw your request or agree to the extension of time, and the due date for the request passes, you have the right to apply for a review to VCAT on the basis of a deemed refusal. Please note, there may be limits on VCAT operations in light of COVID-19.

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