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Getting information from the government

Official Information Act requests: Access to general government information

Official Information Act 1982, s 5 Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987, s 5

The Official Information Act 1982 (“OIA”) allows you to get access to information from central government departments and other public bodies, like school boards.

The central principle behind this Act is that government information should be made available to members of the public unless there’s a good reason for withholding it, like a risk to someone’s safety or to national security.

Similarly, you can get official information from city councils and other local bodies, under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987.

If you’re refused access to information after making an official information request and you don’t think this is justified, you can complain to the Ombudsman.

What’s the difference between the Privacy Act and the Official Information Act?

Making an official information request is a useful tool for gathering information that you have an interest in but that’s not about you personally (for example, if you’re a journalist or an activist). If you’re refused, you can complain to the Ombudsman.

The Privacy Act is useful for making requests for information that’s specifically about you, such as your Work and Income file (see: “Privacy Act requests: Getting access to information that’s about you”). If you’re refused a Privacy Act request, you can complain to the Privacy Commissioner. The grounds on which your request can be refused are narrower under the Privacy Act than under the official information Acts.

However, when you make a request for information, you don’t have to refer to any Act in particular. Whoever holds the information also has to help you make your request in the proper way.

Who can I request official information from?

Official Information Act 1982, s 2 (definitions of “department,” “organisation”), s 12 Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987, ss 2 (definition of “local authority”), 10

You can make an official information request to:

  • central government ministries and departments, like the Ministry of Justice, the Department of Internal Affairs, and the Ministry of Social Development, and the specific units and services within each one (like Work and Income)
  • state-owned enterprises, for example, New Zealand Post and Transpower New Zealand
  • other central government organisations, authorities and commissions, like the Broadcasting Standards Authority, the Commerce Commission, and the police and SIS
  • statutory boards, like the Charities Registration Board
  • public health authorities, including district health boards
  • education institutions, including universities, polytechnics, colleges of education, and school boards of trustees
  • local authorities, including city councils, district councils, regional councils, and community boards (and you can also request from them information held by any private contractors that the local authority has hired).

You can’t make a request to:

  • a court, or
  • a Royal Commission or a commission of inquiry.

Official Information Act 1982, s 20

Note:  The government publishes a Directory of Official Information, which lists all central government bodies alphabetically along with the types of information each one holds. You can find the directory at the Ministry of Justice website, here (or go to: www.justice.govt.nz and search “Directory”).

Making an official information request

How do I make an official information request?

Official Information Act 1982, s 12 Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987, s 10

You make your request directly to the relevant government agency, either verbally or in writing. It’s usually best to put your request in writing, and you should keep a copy of your letter. If you made a verbal request, make a note of the date and the person you spoke to. An email is a good way to request official information, because it creates a dated record of your request and it’s easy to keep a copy.

You should be as specific as possible about the information you want.

You don’t have to refer to the name of any particular Act when you ask for the information – you don’t have to say for example, “I’m making this request under the Official Information Act”.

The agency must help you make the request in the proper way – if, for example, you haven’t given enough detail about the information you want or if the information you want is held by a different agency.

Note:  Central government agencies usually refer to requests for official information as “OIA requests” for short.

Can I be charged for making an official information request?

Official Information Act 1982, s 15(1A)-(3), 28(1)(b) Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987, s 13(1A)-(4), 27(1)(b)

Yes. The agency can charge you a reasonable fee for the staff time involved and the cost of photocopying or other materials. It can require you to pay some or all of the fee in advance.

The government has published charging guidelines for central government agencies dealing with Official Information Act requests. Under the guidelines you usually won’t be charged for the first hour of staff time on your request, or for the first 20 pages of photocopying.

The agency can, however, reduce or waive the charge completely if there’s a good reason. According to the charging guidelines, a good reason could include that you can’t afford the charge, or that you want the information for non-commercial purposes and releasing it would lead to better public understanding of the agency’s work.

You can complain to the Ombudsman if you think a charge is unreasonable.

Note: Be as specific as possible about the information you want when you ask for it. This will keep to a minimum the staff time involved in processing your request and make it less likely that you’ll be charged.

What’s the time limit for responding to my official information request?

Official Information Act 1982, ss 15, 15A, 28 Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987, ss 13, 14, 27

The agency has to respond to your request as soon as reasonably practical, and no later than 20 working days after receiving it.

However, they can extend this time limit if you’ve asked for a lot of information, or if they need to search through a lot of information or to consult with other agencies before they make a decision on your request. The extension can’t be for longer than is reasonable. The agency must tell you if they need to extend the time limit, and they must explain why.

If the agency doesn’t respond within 20 working days, or within a reasonable extension of time after that, you can complain to the Ombudsman.

When official information requests can be refused

Why might my official information request be refused?

Official Information Act 1982, ss 18, 18A, 18B, 19 Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987, ss 17, 17A, 17B, 18

The agency can refuse your request only on one of the grounds stated in the official information Acts. These include:

  • to prevent harm to New Zealand’s security, defence, or international relations
  • to protect someone’s safety or privacy
  • to protect trade secrets or commercially sensitive information
  • because the information is protected by lawyer-client privilege
  • because the information is already publicly available, or soon will be
  • because the agency would have to do a significant amount of research or collating of documents
  • because the relevant document doesn’t exist, or because the agency hasn’t been able to find it after making reasonable efforts
  • because they think you requested the information simply to waste their time.

If the agency refuses your request, they have to tell you why.

What you can do if your official information request is refused

Can I challenge a refusal to give me official information?

Official Information Act 1982, ss 28–32 Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987, ss 27–29

Yes. You can complain to the Ombudsman if your request for official information is refused, or if the agency doesn’t notify you of its decision about your request within the relevant time limit (see: “What’s the time limit for responding to my official information request?”).

How do I make a complaint?

You can complain to the Ombudsman by letter, email, or phone, or by using their online complaint form. For contact details, see: “Complaining to the Ombudsman: The process”.

If initially you make a verbal complaint, you should follow up in writing as soon as you can.

Official Information Act 1982, s 28(3A) Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987, s 27(3A)

It won’t cost you anything to complain to the Ombudsman.

What happens after I complain to the Ombudsman?

Official Information Act 1982, ss 30, 32 Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987, ss 30, 32

If after investigating your complaint the Ombudsman think your request shouldn’t have been refused or that your complaint is otherwise justified, they can make a recommendation to the particular agency about what should happen – for example, that you should be given the relevant information.

The agency is legally required to follow the Ombudsman’s recommendations.

Did this answer your question?

Dealing with government agencies

Where to go for more support

Community Law

Your local Community Law Centre can provide you with free initial legal advice.

Find your local Community Law Centre online: www.communitylaw.org.nz/our-law-centres

Office of the Ombudsman

The Ombudsman handles complaints about Government agencies.

Website: www.ombudsman.parliament.nz
Email: office@ombudsmen.parliament.nz
Phone: 0800 802 602

To make a complaint online: www.ombudsman.parliament.nz/get-help-public

Privacy Commissioner

The Privacy Commissioner website provides information about your rights and responsibilities under the Privacy Act 2020 and the Privacy Principles.  It also outlines the role of the Privacy Commissioner and how to make a privacy complaint.

Website: www.privacy.org.nz
Email: enquiries@privacy.org.nz
Phone: 0800 803 909

To make a complaint online: www.privacy.org.nz/your-rights/making-a-complaint

Te Kāhui Tika Tangata/Human Rights Commission

The Human Rights Commission website provides information about human rights in Aotearoa and outlines how you can make a complaint to the Commission.

Website: www.tikatangata.org.nz or www.hrc.co.nz
Email: infoline@hrc.co.nz
Phone: 0800 496 877 (0800 4 YOUR RIGHTS)

To make a complaint online, download a complaint form or find out more about the complaints process: www.tikatangata.org.nz/resources-and-support/make-a-complaint

Health and Disability Commissioner

The Health and Disability Commissioner website sets out your rights under the Code of Health and Disability Services Consumers’ Rights and how you can make a complaint to the Commissioner.

Website: www.hdc.org.nz
Email: hdc@hdc.org.nz
Phone: 0800 11 22 33

To make a complaint online: www.hdc.org.nz/making-a-complaint/make-a-complaint-to-hdc

Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA)

The Independent Police Conduct Authority website has information about how the Authority receives and investigates complaints about the Police.

Website: www.ipca.govt.nz
Email: info@ipca.govt.nz
Phone: 0800 503 728

To make a complaint online: www.complaints.ipca.govt.nz/195

Directory of Official Information

The Directory of Official Information lists the information each central government body holds.

Website: www.justice.govt.nz/about/official-information-act-requests/directory-of-official-information

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