Last updated 20 April 2019

Access to information legislation provides every person with a legally enforceable right to access certain government documents (s 11 Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Cth) (Freedom of Information Act), s 23 Right to Information Act 2009 (Qld) (Right to Information Act)). Applicants do not need any special interest or reason for requesting access to government-held documents.

The information must be in documentary form for a person to make an access-to-information request. A person cannot use an access-to-information request as a method of compelling a government agency to simply answer questions or provide them with information that it does not keep in documentary form.

What is a document?

The definition of a ‘document’ under access to information laws is broad. A ‘document’ includes written documents, computer disks, audio and video tapes, photographs and maps (s 4 Freedom of Information Act, sch 1 Acts Interpretation Act 1954 (Qld)).  Reference materials and Cabinet notebooks are not ‘documents’.

The Freedom of Information Act and the Right to Information Act both apply to documents in the possession of the agency, regardless of whether the documents were created in the agency or received by it (s 4 Freedom of Information Act, s 12 Right to Information Act). The Acts therefore apply to documents received from third parties, including state and foreign governments, and documents the agency may have downloaded from an external website.

Government bodies where information legislation applies to

The Freedom of Information Act applies to federal ministers, government departments and agencies.

The Right to Information Act applies to Queensland ministers, government departments, local governments, public authorities and government-owned corporations and their subsidiaries.

Some government agencies have total or partial immunity from access to information law.

Government bodies that have total immunity from access to information laws

The Commonwealth Freedom of Information Act lists government bodies that are exempt from access to information laws. This list includes the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, the Office of National Assessments, the Parliamentary Budgets Office and the Australian Government Solicitor (s 7 Freedom of Information Act).

In Queensland, sch 2 of the Right to Information Act states the entities to which the access to information laws do not apply.

Government bodies that have partial immunity from access to information laws

Some government agencies have partial immunity. This means that access to information laws only apply to certain documents or functions of the agencies.

Some Commonwealth government agencies are exempt in respect of some types of documents. Partial immunities under the Freedom of Information Act often relate to documents relevant to the commercial activities of particular bodies. Some examples are documents of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in relation to ‘program material and datacasting content’, the Australian Postal Corporation in relation to ‘commercial activities’ and the Reserve Bank of Australia in relation to ‘banking operations’ (sch 2 pt 2 Freedom of Information Act).

In Queensland, sch 2 pt 2 of the Right to Information Act list the entities to which this Act does not apply in relation to a particular function.