FOI important tool for open and accountable government

15 February 2008

LIBERTY Victoria is concerned about the Government’s proposed changes to FOI. “One can understand the frustration of Government Departments with repeated requests by members of the public for information about Government decisions. However, it must also be understood that such requests are an important feature of democracy and a necessary component of open and accountable government,” said Julian Burnside QC, President of Liberty Victoria”.

“Liberty Victoria is critical of the changes particularly in relation to “vexatious litigants”. Under these proposals, an application can be made to have a person declared a “vexatious litigant” but the criteria for the application are not sufficiently stringent or clear.”

“S61C of the ‘Freedom of Information Amendment Bill 2007’ explains vexatious as “repeated applications’ that “involve an abuse of the right of access, amendment or review” or “were made for the purpose or have had the effect of obstructing or otherwise unreasonably interfering with the operations of the agency or agencies.”

“The problem with this definition is that something that is perceived as vexatious by Government departments may in fact be a legitimate concern that is not easily discernable by the bureaucrats. There are many instances where persistence, though perceived as a nuisance at the time, has brought to light matters of strong public interest”.

President, Julian Burnside QC said that “equating the amount of requests with an abuse of process is simplistic and may have a detrimental impact on local government, the media and citizens with a genuine inquiry. It is the job of public servants to ensure their processes are open to public scrutiny. Such demands for scrutiny should not be viewed as a nuisance”.

“Should the Government feel the necessary to lessen the requests from vexatious litigants, it needs to ensure that it does so in a way that does not close down the public’s right to information. The Ombudsman’s finding that State Government Departments and police rejected 67% of FOI requests in 2006 is disturbing. Liberty Victoria believes that the imprecise language and the process in the Bill will increase government secrecy rather than open it to public scrutiny”.