Reasons to withhold information
If someone requests information under the Official Information Act 1982 (OIA), the information may be withheld for a number of reasons. These include:
- risk to the security or defence of New Zealand or its international relations
- threat to the maintenance of the law, investigation of offences and the right to a fair trial
- serious damage to the economy
- personal privacy
- trade secrets and commercial sensitivity
- the need to protect communications with the queen and the governor-general, collective and individual responsibility of government ministers, and the political neutrality of officials
- free and frank advice between officials and ministers
- legal professional privilege.
Reviewing decisions to withhold
If a person is unhappy with the response they get (usually because information has been withheld), they can ask the ombudsman to review the decision. The ombudsman will obtain the full information from the agency and an explanation of their reasons for withholding it, before forming an independent view on whether the information can be released. If the ombudsman recommends that it should be released, this decision is legally binding.
The New Zealand OIA is unusual in international terms. It goes much further than most other freedom-of-information regimes in terms of what information is able to be requested and the limitations on the reasons for refusing to release information. In most countries, the legislation states categories of documents or information that are automatically excluded from release. Cabinet papers are often automatically excluded, as in Queensland, Australia, for example. In New Zealand cabinet papers are often released only days after cabinet has considered them.
Since 1982 there have been many other legislative reforms that have built on the principles and practice established by the OIA. They include:
- the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987, which applies a similar regime to the local government sector
- the Privacy Act 1993, which replaced the parts of the OIA that dealt with access to personal information with a comprehensive regime for access to such information across the public and private sectors
- the Fiscal Responsibility Act 1994, which established a system of regular disclosure of information about the government’s financial position. This act was incorporated into the Public Finance Act 1989 in a set of 2004 reforms
- the Criminal Disclosure Act 2008, which created a regime for pre-trial disclosure of information in criminal cases, to replace the administrative system that had developed under the OIA.