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Information Commissioner finds VicForests did not provide fair public access to information

Investigation report into VicForests’ handling of a series of FOI requests now published

Today the Information Commissioner published an investigation report into VicForests’ handling of a series of freedom of information (FOI) requests.

In July 2020, a member of the public made an FOI request to VicForests seeking information she believed the agency held about her. VicForests refused to process her request on the basis that it was not sufficiently clear.

Over the course of almost two years, the FOI applicant made three more FOI requests to VicForests, one application for review to OVIC and two complaints. She has still not gained access to the information she seeks.

The Information Commissioner decided to conduct an investigation into VicForests’ handling of these FOI requests. The objective was to determine whether VicForests complied with the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Vic) (FOI Act) and the Professional Standards when responding to the applicant’s FOI requests and complaints.

“The FOI Act is not intended merely to prescribe a process. Its purpose is to provide access to information so that Victorians can hold government, its agencies and statutory authorities to account and participate meaningfully in a democratic society,” said Information Commissioner Sven Bluemmel.

“Agencies should process FOI requests with this public purpose front of mind and reflect on how they can meet their obligations under the FOI Act in a way that meets the needs of applicants and the communities they serve.”

The Commissioner’s investigation found that VicForests focussed on technical legal processes above other considerations and missed opportunities to help the applicant make a valid FOI request. This came at the expense of providing fair access to information.

Based on these matters, the Commissioner found that VicForests acted inconsistently with its responsibility under sections 3 and 16(1) of the FOI Act to make the maximum amount of government information available promptly and inexpensively to the public.

“In its handling of these FOI requests, VicForests was focused on process and the outcome was forgotten – which should have been to help this person obtain fair and prompt access to information,” said Mr Bluemmel.

The investigation report outlines eight recommendations to VicForests to enhance its FOI processes and practices.

VicForests does not accept all of the Commissioner’s findings and believes it met its obligations under the FOI Act. However, it has agreed to implement the Commissioner’s recommendations.

The applicant in this investigation faced a complex and difficult legal process to seek access to information about herself. No Victorian should find themselves in that position.

There are lessons for all Victorian government agencies and statutory authorities in the investigation report. It also highlights the need for the FOI Act to be made simpler, to allow Victorians to access government information about themselves quickly and easily.

For media enquiries contact:

Simone Martin

t:            0466 097 816

For enquiries about FOI in Victoria contact:

Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner (OVIC)

t:         1300 006 842

For further background, please refer to:

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