Freedom of Information documents made clear

"BUT the documents he is looking for do not exist!" you protest to the freedom of information officer.

"All I have are these notes in my notebook - they are not official documents!"

You may not think that your notes are "official documents of the department, but the view under the legislation is quite different.

Under the Freedom of Information Act 1992 a person has a legally enforceable right to access documents of an agency.

A "document" is defined by the Acts Interpretation Act 1954 as including any paper or other material on which there is writing; any paper or other material with marks, figures, symbols or perforations which have a meaning for a person qualified to interpret them; and any disc, tape or other article or material from which sounds images, writings or messages are capable of being produced or reproduced. "Document" is further defined by the Freedom of Information Act 1992 as including a copy of a document, part or extract of a document and a copy of a part or extract of a document.

The definition is very broad. It means that no matter how scrappy the piece of paper on which you jotted down notes, that paper will still be a document and be accessible under the freedom of information provisions.

You may protest that you bought the notebook with private funds, that it is your private notebook, which surely is not a "document of an agency" when it clearly belongs to you.

Again, the Act provides a definition of "document of an agency" as meaning a document in the possession or under the control of an agency.

A document of an agency includes a document to which the agency is entitled to access; and a document in the possession or under the control of an officer of the agency in the officer's official capacity.

So, if you wrote those notes as a result of your job with the department, the notes do comprise "documents of the agency" and must be provided for consideration by the freedom of information decision-maker if requested.

On the other hand if you wrote those notes, not in your official capacity, but as a result of your involvement with an organisation which is not associated with Education Queensland and is not an agency for the purposes of the Freedom of Information Act 1992, then the documents may not be documents of the department and would probably not be accessible.

The test is whether or not you created and hold those documents as a result of your job with the department. It is safest to assume that most things done in the school context will he accessible to the freedom of information applicant

This, naturally, does not mean that you have to keep all your notes and papers for years on end. If the notes you take are of an ephemeral nature they may he destroyed as soon as you no longer need them.

In all other instances you should refer to the retention and disposal schedule for authority to destroy records.

If destruction of the document is not authorised by the schedule, authority must be obtained from the state archivist before you can dispose of it.

(Legal Briefs is issued for the general information of readers and should not be relied on as a substitute for detailed advice.)

From EDUCATION VIEWS Vol. 7, No 20 October 30, 1998 Page 22 with kind permission.

Warning this document has been scanned and OCR and spell checked from original and exact reproduction is not guaranteed.