Chapter 1: Introduction

Background

Over the past three decades there has been a worldwide trend towards legislating for freedom of access to official information. The importance of citizens having access to government information is also recognised in international law.1

The rationales in favour of open government and access to official information are clear and well-rehearsed. They include:

  • enabling participation in the democratic process;
  • allowing government to be held to account; and
  • promoting trust in government, rather than engendering suspicion through secrecy.

In addition, the release of official information can have benefits for wider society. Government collects and holds much information that can be analysed and used by businesses, researchers, and others outside government.

In recognition of these benefits the Official Information Act was passed in 1982, and the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act in 1987. Both Acts are based on the fundamental premise that if a citizen requests information from a government agency the information “shall be made available unless there is good reason for withholding it”. That was a sea-change from the policy of the Official Secrets Act 1951 which preceded them.

It will be helpful at this point to summarise the scheme of the present legislation.

See Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) Art 19; International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) Art 19.