Last updated 20 May 2022

Before lodging a complaint about a government administrative decision, a person should:

  • check whether a time limit applies to any review process
  • find out what government entity is responsible for the decision
  • access as much information as possible relevant to the decision
  • work out the available administrative review avenues
  • request and read the statement of reasons
  • consider legal advice.

Find out what government entity is responsible

Before lodging a complaint about a government administrative decision, it is important to know which government department or entity is responsible for the decision. Different laws apply to the Commonwealth, state and local governments, and court proceedings must be started in the correct jurisdiction.

An easy way to distinguish between Commonwealth, state and local government agencies is to do an internet search of the relevant website or ring the agency and ask which government controls it. Alternatively, ask the Queensland or Commonwealth Ombudsman.

Access information relevant the decision

Guidelines, policy documents and instruction manuals are normally issued by departments to assist their officers in the performance of delegated functions. In framing a review of an administrative decision, it may be very important to see these documents, as they may contain incorrect interpretations of the law or may require some irrelevant or improper factors to be considered before administrative action is taken or a decision is made.

Information is often readily available through administrative access procedures. Search the government agency’s website to see if the information is published, call or email the agency to ask for access. General information about where to direct enquiries for certain information may be obtained from the government enquiries line (in Queensland) or the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (for Commonwealth matters).

Where information is not freely available online or by request, it might be accessible to the public under right-to-information laws. The Right to Information Act 2009 (Qld) (Right to Information Act) and Information Privacy Act 2009 (Qld) require Queensland government agencies to make information available to the public unless it is contrary to the public interest to give access. See the Right to Information and Freedom Information chapter for further information. For example, policy documents containing interpretations, rules, guidelines, statements of policy, practices or precedents must be made available to the public (s 20 Right to Information Act).

The Commonwealth Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Cth) aims to give broad access to information held by Commonwealth Government agencies, and includes a requirement to both publish and facilitate access to information held by the government. The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner website has useful guidance about accessing information from the Commonwealth Government.

The refusal of access to information under right-to-information laws is an administrative decision that is generally reviewable.

Work out the available administrative review avenues

Available avenues for reviewing the act or decision should be set out in the governing legislation or policy that applies to the government department.

Generally speaking:

  • where an internal review process exists, this must often be followed before an administrative appeal or judicial review can be commenced
  • where the law or policy binding the government entity allows for an administrative appeal or merits review in an administrative tribunal, this can be utilised after the internal review
  • where there is no external right of administrative appeal or merits review, generally the only means of challenging the decision will be judicial review to a court
  • an external complaint to a complaint handling organisation such as an ombudsman or the Human Rights Commissioner may be considered at any stage, where a complaint right exists under the legislation governing that entity
  • where there is no internal review, appeal or judicial review available, non-legal complaint options may be considered.

In order to determine whether there are grounds for merits review, judicial review or a complaint to an external organisation, it will often be necessary to check the governing legislation.

Relevant legislation, including Acts and Regulations that bind the government department or agency, is often available on the relevant entity’s website, by contacting the government agency or relevant ombudsman. The complaints handling policy may also summarise relevant legislation.

Ombudsman and external complaints-handling organisations have comprehensive information circumstances in which they can accept a complaint about the actions or decisions of government on their websites.

Request the statement of reasons

A statement of reasons is designed to explain how a decision has been made. It should help the person affected by the decision to understand the reasons for the decision and will assist in deciding the appropriate course of review.

Administrative decision makers now routinely provide a statement of reasons with notification of their decisions. If the decision is subject to Queensland judicial review legislation, then the decision maker will be required to give reasons within 28 days of a request for reasons being made (s 38 Judicial Review Act 1991 (Qld)). If the decision is reviewable in the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal (QCAT) by way of administrative appeal, written reasons must accompany the decision (s 157 Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal Act 2009 (Qld)). Similar requirements exist under Commonwealth law.

If a decision maker fails to provide a statement of reasons within the required period, an application may be made to the court or tribunal for an order that a statement be provided.

Comprehensive guidance on obtaining a statement of decisions is set out in the Complaints against Government—Judicial Review and Complaints against Government—Administrative Appeals chapters.

Check time limits and consider legal advice

Time limits within which to make applications in relation to administrative decisions are relatively short, so it is important to find out the time limit and make the application within the time prescribed.

Review processes and time limits are generally set out in the governing legislation or the guidelines, and may be referred to in the statement of reasons, policy documents and instruction manuals relevant to the decision.

Time limits may apply to both internal and external review of a decision. Often if internal review processes have not been followed, an external review of the decision in a court or tribunal cannot be commenced. However, this may not be strictly applied in all cases.

Time limits also exist for complaints to external complaints organisation such as the Queensland Human Rights Commission.

Although tribunals and courts have the power to grant extensions of time to make applications for review, this power is discretionary and will normally only be granted in exceptional circumstances. If in any doubt about the relevant time limit or administrative law avenue to pursue, consult a solicitor.