Australia’s FOI legal bill jumps in 2022

Despite a 2% reduction in the number of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests received by Australian Commonwealth Government agencies in 2021-2022 Financial Year, FOI processing costs jumped by 5%, driven largely by increased expenditure on legal advice and litigation.

Total legal costs jumped by more than 50% over 2020-2021. At $3.2 million they made up the vast bulk of non-labour costs of FOI.

The high litigation costs were incurred primarily by Services Australia, Home Affairs, the, the ATO, PM&C, Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE) and the Attorney General’s Department.

In its 2021-22 Annual Report, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) reported the total staff hours devoted to FOI was very much the same in 2021–22 (851,290 hours) as it was in 2020–21 (855,498 hours).

There were 33% more notifications and applications for extensions of time (EOTs) for FOI processing during this financial year compared to 2020–21.

“When applying for EOTs, agencies continued to provide reasons relating to the COVID-19 pandemic as a cause for delay in processing FOI requests, particularly during the various lockdown periods. Reasons included redeployment of staff to frontline services and an inability to access hard copy files at offsite storage facilities.”

The agencies that received the largest numbers of FOI requests in 2021–22 were: Home Affairs, Services Australia, the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA), Veterans’ Affairs, the AAT, and the Department of Health (Health). Together, these 6 agencies received 75% of FOI requests received by Australian Government agencies and ministers, and 87% of all requests for access to personal information.

The OIC reports that agencies are blaming the increased complexity and volume in the FOI request caseload for processing delays.

The number of applications for review by the Information Commissioner jumped markedly in 2022 to nearly 2000, up 63% from 2021.

“One of the causes of this significant increase was a large increase in IC review applications relating to decisions deemed to have been refused by Home Affairs because statutory timeframes had not been met. Of the 1,022 review applications made in which Home Affairs was the respondent in 2021–22, 885 involved deemed access refusals.”

The average time taken to finalise an IC review was 6.3 months, although almost 20% of applications are still not finalised within 12 months. The OAIC has 135 staff, with 40% from non-English speaking background.

The OAIC Annual Report is available HERE.