How to make an official information request Introduction You make an official information request to the Government body that holds the information you want. You must be given the information unless there’s good reason for it to be kept secret. If you’re not given the information, you can complain to the Ombudsmen. Requests for official information are governed by the OFFICIAL INFORMATION ACT 1982 (central government) and the LOCAL GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL INFORMATION AND MEETINGS ACT 1987 (local government).
How do I make a request? You should contact the Minister, department or other Government body directly. You don’t have to apply in writing, but it’s preferable that you do so. You should be specific about the information that you want. Keep a copy of your letter to the information holder. If you didn’t make your request in writing, make a written note of whom you spoke to when you requested the information, the date of your request, and exactly what information you asked for. If you’re not specific enough in your request, or if you make your request to the wrong organisation, the organisation that you have approached cannot simply reject your request: they must help you to make your request in the proper way or to the right organisation. If the information you want is personal information about you, your request is governed by the PRIVACY ACT 1993 rather than the OFFICIAL INFORMATION ACT 1982. In practice, this distinction is unimportant when you make your request, because you don’t have to refer to any particular Act. But the distinction becomes important if your request is refused. If your request is for personal information your means of challenging a refusal is to complain to the Privacy Commissioner (see How to complain to the Privacy Commissioner. If your request was for other information, you complain to the Ombudsmen (see below, "What can I do if my request is refused?").
Who can make an official information request? Any New Zealand citizen or permanent resident, or anyone who is in New Zealand, can make an official information request.
What bodies can I make an official information request to? You can make a request to: • • • •
central Government departments, Ministers, and other Government entities such as state-owned enterprises local Government bodies, including regional, district and city councils and community boards District Health Boards and other public health authorities universities, colleges of education and other tertiary institutions, and school Boards of Trustees
You cannot make a request to: •
Courts and tribunals Royal Commissions and commissions of inquiry
How can I find out who holds the information I want? The Ministry of Justice publishes a "Directory of Official Information" that lists all the departments and other organisations that are subject to the OFFICIAL INFORMATION ACT 1982, what each organisation does, and the sorts of information that they hold. The Directory also explains how to get access to official information, including details of the specific person you should contact in each organisation. You can read this directory on-line on the Ministry of Justice website at www.justice.govt.nz (under Publications/Online Reports and Reviews/2001). But if you make your request to the wrong organisation, the organisation you’ve approached must in any case help you to make your request to the right organisation.
Will it cost me anything to have access to the information? Yes, the information holder can charge you a reasonable fee. You can be required to pay some or all of this fee in advance. The Government has issued guidelines for how much can be charged. Under these guidelines, you normally won’t be charged for the first hour of time spent processing your request, nor for the first 20 pages of photocopying. See "Ministry of Justice, Charging Guidelines for Official Information Act 1982 Requests", which can be read on-line at www.justice.govt.nz (under Publications/Online Reports and Reviews/2002).
How long will it take to get the information? The information holder must respond to your request as soon as is reasonably practicable and not later than 20 working days after you made your request. This time limit can be extended for a reasonable period if the information holder needs more time because you’ve requested a large amount of information, or because your request requires searching through a large amount of information, or because the information holder needs to consult to make a proper decision. The information holder must tell you that the time limit has been extended and must tell you why. If you don’t get a response within 20 working days, you can complain to the Ombudsman (see below).
In what form will the information be made available to me? When the information you want is in a document, the information can be made available by providing you with: • • • • •
a reasonable opportunity to inspect the document, or a copy of the document, or a written transcript (if the document is a recording), or an excerpt or summary of the document, or oral information about the document’s contents
When can my request be refused?
The OFFICIAL INFORMATION ACT 1982 creates a presumption in favour of Government information being released, so that you’re entitled to be given the information unless there’s "good reason" for it to be withheld. This is called the "principle of availability". There are a number of reasons that give the information holder conclusive justification for withholding the information – namely, that releasing the information would be likely: • • • • •
to prejudice New Zealand’s security, defence or international relations, or to prejudice the entrusting of information to the Government by foreign Governments or international organisations on a confidential basis, or to prejudice the maintenance of the law, including the prevention, investigation and detection of offences, and the right to a fair trial, or to endanger the safety of any person, or to seriously damage the New Zealand economy by disclosing Government policy decisions prematurely
There is also a second group of reasons that are more common and that involve a balancing test with the public interest in Government information being made available. If one of these reasons exists, the information can be withheld unless other considerations make it desirable, in the public interest, for the information to be released. This second group of reasons for withholding information include, among others: • • • • •
to protect someone’s privacy (including someone who’s dead) to protect trade secrets, or the commercial position of the supplier of or the subject of the information to protect the health or safety of the public to avoid prejudice to New Zealand’s "substantial economic interests" to maintain the confidentiality of lawyer-client communications ("legal professional privilege")
As well as when there is "good reason" for withholding the information, as explained above, the information holder can also withhold the information when: • • • • • •
the information is or will soon be publicly available, or the information or document doesn’t exist or can’t be found, or making the information available would require substantial collating or research, or making the information available would be contrary to a specific Act, or would be contempt of Court or contempt of Parliament, or in some sensitive cases (for example, information about terrorism), the existence of the information can be neither confirmed or denied, or the request is frivolous or vexatious or the information is trivial
When deciding whether to refuse your request on the ground that it would involve substantial collating or research, the information holder must consider whether it could grant your request if it charged you a fee or extended the time limit for responding to your request, or both. Further, if it's likely that your request would be refused on that ground or because the information or document doesn't exist or can't be found, the information holder must first consider whether it could help you make the request in a way that would remove the difficulty.
What can I do if my request is refused? If the information holder refuses to give you the information, you can complain to an Ombudsman. It doesn’t cost anything to complain. You should write to the Ombudsman’s office that is nearest to you. There are Ombudsmen in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Their contact details are as follows:
Level 5, 17 Albert St Auckland Ph: (09) 379 6102 or 379 6103 Fax: (09) 377 6537 Level 14, 70 The Terrace PO Box 10152 Wellington Ph: (04) 473 9533 Fax: (04) 471 2254 Level 6, 764 Colombo St PO Box 13-482 Christchurch Ph: (03) 366 8556 Fax: (03) 365 7935
You can also email the Ombudsmen at: •
Your complaint to the Ombudsman doesn't have to be in writing. But if it's not in writing, you must put it into writing as soon as practicable.
What can the Ombudsman do about my complaint? If the Ombudsman thinks that the information should be released, they can recommend to the information holder that it release the information. If the information holder is part of central Government, usually it will have to comply with the Ombudsman’s recommendation. This is because the recommendation becomes binding after 21 working days. The Government can override the recommendation with a veto passed as an Order in Council by Cabinet sitting with the Governor-General, but this veto has almost never been used. If the information holder is a local authority, the Ombudsman’s recommendation becomes binding after 21 working days unless the local authority passes a resolution overriding it.
Cautionary notes •
If you have requested personal information held about you by a Government body, and the information holder refuses your request, you should complain to the Privacy Commissioner, not to the Ombudsman (see How to complain to the Privacy Commissioner).