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Official Information Acts: the Public’s Right to Know

Official Information Acts: the Public’s Right to Know

The Law Commission today released its final report, The Public’s Right to Know: Review of the Official Information Legislation (NZLC R125, 2012).

“Access to official information is vitally important for individuals and society,” says Professor John Burrows, the Lead Commissioner for this project. “Our review has evaluated how the Acts are faring 30 years on. In passing these Acts, New Zealand was an international leader in establishing a regime of openness in central and local government. Many other countries have tried to emulate our success and have overtaken us in some areas.”

The Law Commission has found that a number of significant commercial, economic, legislative and societal changes mean that key aspects of the Acts need to be reformed. The government has also made it clear that open and transparent government, including greater access to useful information, is one of the results it expects under the Better Public Services agenda.

“The law needs to keep pace with the changing context in which the Acts now operate. We need to tread the line between meeting growing citizen expectations for access to information, while recognising the limits on agency resources available to service the legislation. Our challenge has been to identify ways in which the Acts can be improved, without putting unrealistic burdens on agencies. We think there are real opportunities to both enhance the official information regime and to find efficiencies.”

Overall, the Commission’s report reinforces that the main principles of the Act remain sound. The presumption in favour of openness has successfully changed the secretive culture of government that used to prevail under the Official Secrets Act. The Commission strongly endorses the role played by the Ombudsmen in investigating complaints against public agencies that do not to release information when requested.

The Commission recommends the Acts could be improved in a number of targeted areas such as:

• revamping the Ombudsmen’s guidance about release and withholding, using decided cases as examples to provide more clarity
• redrafting unclear and confusing withholding grounds – in particular the so-called “good government” grounds
• new withholding grounds to better protect commercially sensitive information, and information provided in the course of a statutory investigation or inquiry
• giving advance notice to people and organisations whose private, confidential or commercial information is liable to be released
• adjusting the grounds for refusing requests which impose too great a workload on agencies
• encouraging proactive release of public information
• new statutory oversight functions to support the legislative framework
• increasing the reach of the legislation by including additional bodies within its scope, either fully or partially, such as specified information about the courts and certain parliamentary bodies

“These changes would make the Act more effective in meeting requests for official information in the current climate of limited public sector resources,” Professor Burrows says.

“We have no doubt that the changes we recommend are needed for New Zealand to keep pace with the rest of the world and have a system that will be fit for purpose in a fast-moving environment. Opportunities for review and reform do not arise frequently, perhaps once in a generation. We believe the reform package we have come up with, a mix of targeted changes to the legislation and user-friendly guidance for both public bodies and requesters, will improve the OIA and LGOIMA and ensure they are in the best possible shape to perform their vital role into the 21st century.”

The report follows the Law Commission’s survey of users of the Acts in 2009-2010, and an Issues Paper in 2010. The Government will now consider the recommendations in the Law Commission’s report, and will respond to them in due course.

The report is available on the Commission’s website www.lawcom.govt.nz.


Full set of media releases (PDF File)
Report Link: NZLC R125 The Public's Right to Know: Review of the Official Information Legislation

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