New Zealand

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  • 18 December 2014

    New Zealand Ombudsman Orders Review of Access

    The New Zealand Chief Ombudsman has ordered a review of the practices of government agencies in processing requests under the Official Information Act (OIA). Dame Beverley Wakem said that 12 central government agencies have been selected for formal review, while a further 63 agencies and all 27 Ministers’ offices are being asked to complete a […]

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  • 11 February 2014

    New Zealand Resists Pressure to Release TPP Text

    New Zealand’s government on Feb. 11 blocked a Labour Party move in Parliament to force the release of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement before it is approved by the Cabinet. Labour leader David Cunliffe was quoted as saying he was “disappointed, but not surprised,” according to a New Zealand media report. Trade Minister […]

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News Archive

  • 18 September 2013

    New Zealand to Join OGP Later This Year, Keyes Says

    New Zealand Prime Minister John Keyes Sept. 19 said his country will join the Open Government Partnership later this year, overcoming previous reluctance. The announcement came after Keyes met in London with UK Prime Minister David Cameron. The UK now is an OGP co-chair and will be hosting the OGP meeting in London in late […]

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  • 8 March 2013

    The Hobbit and Commercial Information: A Cautionary Tale

    By Dani Gardiner Gardiner is a senior associate with the New Zealand law firm ChenPalmer. The recent decision of Ombudsman David McGee concerning The Hobbit documents stands as a reminder to businesses to exercise care when disclosing commercially sensitive information to the Government. The Ombudsman found that the Government was not entitled to withhold a […]

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  • 4 February 2013

    FOI OK for Courts, But Not New Zealand Parliament

    The New Zealand government has said it is willing to apply the Official Information Act to the administrative functions of the courts, but will not support having it extended to cover Parliament. Justice Minister Judith Collins Feb. 4 gave the government’s responses to recommendations from the Law Commission in July of 2012, supporting many of […]

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  • 20 December 2012

    New Zealand Viewed Joining OGP as Resource Drain

    Joining the Open Government Partnership was viewed as a low priority and a potential drain on resources in a memo prepared in February 2012 within the New Zealand government. New Zealand has not joined the OGP. This prompted Andrew Ecclestone, a researcher and consultant on freedom of information, to request documents relevant to the government’s deliberations […]

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  • 6 December 2012

    Irish Minister Proposes Joining OGP; Others?

    A top minister in the Irish government has proposed that Ireland join the Open Government Partnership and more information has emerged about the possibility of membership by Australia, and other countries. The Irish Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin, in a Dec. 5 address stated, “I intend to bring proposals to Government shortly […]

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  • 30 July 2012

    New Zealand Commission Offers 100 FOI Reforms

    The New Zealand Law Commission July 25 issued a final report making more than 100 recommendations to reform 30-year-old right to know laws. The report, The Public’s Right to Know: Review of the Official Information Legislation, evaluates the effectiveness the Official Information Act 1982 and the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987. “The […]

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  • 15 August 2011

    New Zealand Pledges to Release Public Data

    The New Zealand government has committed to release “high value public data,” according to a government announcement. The Declaration on Open and Transparent Government was approved by the Cabinet on Aug. 8. Also released wer the New Zealand Data and Information Management Principles, stating that “data and information must be open, trusted and authoritative, well managed, […]

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  • 8 October 2010

    New Zealand Commission Recommends Changing Law

    The New Zealand Law Commission has recommended more proactive release of information and eliminating the right of Cabinet or local authorities to veto a release order, according to media accounts. The Law Commission on Sept. 20 released an issues paper, “The Public’s Right To Know,” and requested public comments by Dec. 10. The commission recommended […]

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  • 12 December 2007

    Information Commissioners Hold 5th International Conference in New Zealand

    Open Sessions Include NGO Participation; Commissioners Plan Future Cooperation By Kristin Adair for freedominfo.org Information commissioners, government officials, and civil society representatives from around the world met at the 5th International Conference of Information Commissioners (ICIC) in Wellington, New Zealand, November 26-29.  The four-day conference consisted of one day of closed meetings for the commissioners, […]

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  • 28 September 2005

    International Right to Know Day 2005

    Since 2002, freedom of information advocates around the world have been working together to promote the right of access to information for all people and recognize the benefits of transparent and accountable governments. We use this day as a way to share ideas, strategies and success stories about the development of freedom of information laws […]

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links

LEGAL DOCUMENTS

Bill of Rights Act (Section 14)

 

Official Information Act 1982

 

Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987

 

GOVERNMENT

Office of Ombudsman

 

Privacy Commissioner

 

OTHER RESOURCES

Law Commission, Review of the Official Information Act 1982

 

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

Click to view.

Text from the freedominfo.org Global Survey: Freedom of Information and Access to Government Records Around the World, by David Banisar (updated July 2006)

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

Section 14 of the Bill of Rights Act states that "Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form."(1)

The Official Information Act 1982 starts from the principle that all official information should be available.(2) The Court of Appeals said in 1988 that "the permeating importance of the Act is such that it is entitled to be ranked as a constitutional measure."(3) Any citizen, resident, or company in New Zealand can demand official information held by public bodies, state-owned enterprises and bodies which carry out public functions. Agencies have been required in some cases to take down notes of discussions that contributed to government decision-making if no documents are available. The body has no more than 20 days to respond.

There are strict exemptions for releasing information that would harm national security and international relations; information provided in confidence by other governments or international organizations; information that is needed for the maintenance of the law and the protection of any person; information that would harm the economy of New Zealand; and information related to the entering into any trade agreements. In a second set of exemptions, information can be withheld for good reason unless there is an overriding public interest. These exemptions include information that could intrude into personal privacy, commercial secrets, privileged communication and confidences, information that if disclosed could damage public safety and health, economic interests, constitutional conventions and the effective conduct of public affairs, including "the free and frank expression of opinions" by officials and employees.

The Office of the Ombudsmen reviews denials of access.(4) The decisions of the Ombudsmen have limited many of the categories of exemption, requiring agencies to justify their decisions in terms of the possible consequences of disclosure. The focus has shifted from withholding information to setting how and when information, especially politically sensitive information, should be released.(5) As noted by a previous Secretary of the Cabinet, "virtually all written work in the government these days is prepared on the assumption that it will be made public in time […] the focus in the current open style of government is on managing the dissemination of official information."(6) It is common for Cabinet documents and advice to be released.

The Ombudsmen's decisions are binding, but there are limited sanctions for non-compliance and some agencies have reportedly ignored their rulings. The Ombudsmen received 922 complaints in 2004-05 and actioned 1,183 complaints overall. A 2005 study into the Act found that of the sample applications assessed, requesters who were denied information were informed of their review rights in 71 per cent of responses.(7) Significantly, private individuals were told of their review rights in only 53 per cent of responses. The police was the organization most complained about. The vast majority of complaints related to refusals or delays which were deemed as refusals. It took the Ombudsman's office an average of 73 days to complete their handling of complaints.(8)

In 2005, the Ombudsmen made a couple of notable precedent-setting decisions. They dealt with a number of complaints regarding whether advice or opinions from political advisers could be accessed under the Act. Political advisers themselves are not covered by the Act, but, if information generated by advisers comes to be held by a Minister in his or her official capacity, or by an agency subject to the Act, the Ombudsman found that that information is subject to the Act. The Ombudsman also considered the issue of whether MPs should be charged fees for their requests. Generally, where the requester is an MP, charges are waived because it is recognized that there is a public interest in MPs having access to information so they can exercise their democratic responsibilities. However, the Ombudsman found that in some cases it was still reasonable to fix a charge, namely, where a Member made serial, virtually identical requests, repeated on a monthly basis, for information coming within a widely framed category. In 2004, he ruled that the papers from the joint Australia New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council, a body that now sets food standards for New Zealand, could be withheld but recommended changes to the Act to limit the definition of an international organization.

The Governor General can issue a "Cabinet veto" directing an agency not to comply with the Ombudsmen's decision. The veto, however, can be reviewed by the High Court. Between 1983 and 1987, 14 vetoes were exercised under a system that allowed individual ministers to issue vetoes. Veto power has not been used since 1987, when it was converted to a collective decision.

An Information Authority was created under the Act. The Authority conducted audits, reviewed legislation and proposed changes. The OIA put a fixed term on its existence and body was automatically dissolved in 1988 after Parliament failed to amend the Act. Some of its functions were transferred to the Legislative Advisory Committee and the Ombudsmen.

The Law Commission released a detailed review of the Act in 1997.(9) It found that the biggest problems were large and broadly defined requests, delays in responding to requests, resistance to the Act outside the core state sector, and the absence of a coordinated approach to supervision, compliance, policy advice and education. The review also found that "the assumption that policy advice will eventually be released under the Act has in our view improved the quality and transparency of [policy] advice." The Commission recommended reducing response time to 15 days and making agencies respond before the deadline, requiring bodies that do not appeal Ombudsman's decisions to the court to release information, giving the Ministry of Justice more coordination responsibility (in lieu of creating an Information Commission), providing more resources to the Ombudsman and Ministry of Justice, and adequately funding the Ombudsman's public activities to promote the Act. The proposals have not been acted upon yet.(10)

In 2005, a review by academic Steven Price found that problems with the Act remained.(11) The review quoted former MP Michael Laws as saying, "It is ridiculously easy to circumvent the act and to hide information from requesters and Ombudsmen alike […] Of course, all potentially embarrassing information is routinely refused and time delays are simply de rigueur." Price reported that the Ombudsman's 2002 OIA Practice Guideline contain a damning list of 57 "misconceptions" about the OIA that persist more than 20 years after its enactment, including that information must be withheld if the person concerned does not consent to its release; if the information is misleading it can be withheld; any confidential information can be withheld; and that ministers have a right to undisturbed consideration of advice; drafts can be withheld. It is understood that the Government has recently commissioned an academic study of the Act looking at how well it is administered and where shortcomings continue to exist. The report is likely to be released at the end of 2006.

In the past few years, there have been several significant controversies relating to failures to release information. In 2003, the Immigration Service told the Ombudsman that it did not possess a memorandum that stated that the Immigration Service was "lying in unison" regarding the case of Ahmed Zaoui, an Algerian asylum seeker.(12) The memo was subsequently leaked to a MP and the Ombudsman re-opened his inquiry and issued a new report critical of the agency and recommended changes to the information request procedures.(13) The employee was later sacked. The Ombudsmen reviewed the revised procedures and noted in their 2003-2004 report that "the resulting policy for handling OIA requests produced by the Department is one of the best we have seen and would serve as a model on how to approach statutory obligations under the official information legislation."

The Ombudsmen said the greatest problems that caused delays is a failure to determine who is responsible for answering the request and in cases where "politically sensitive" information is requested and when third parties need to be notified. The Ombudsmen said there was an "urgent need" for better training of public employees and released new Practice Guidelines to facilitate better understanding of the Act. The report also reviewed an effort by the government to create a de facto class exemption for advice to the Prime Minister from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and stated that decisions would still have to be made on a case by case basis. In 2004, they recommended additional training by either the State Services Commission or the Ministry of Justice to improve all agencies' consistency in responding to requests and are seeking more money to provide additional training themselves since the two bodies have not done it themselves.

The Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987 provides for access to information held by local authorities.(14) It follows the same framework for access as the OIA. It is also overseen by the Ombudsmen.

The Privacy Act 1993 allows individuals to obtain and correct records about themselves held by public and private bodies.(15) It is overseen by the Privacy Commissioner.(16) The Privacy Commissioner and the Ombudsman have an agreement to work together when there is a request that applies to both Acts. In 1998, the Privacy Commissioner also recommended more training for government officials to reduce the misapplication of the Privacy Act to justify nondisclosure.(17)

The OIA repealed the Official Secrets Act 1951. Protections for classified information are set by a Cabinet Directive issued in 1982.(18) The levels of protection are Top Secret, Secret, Confidential, Restricted, Sensitive and In Confidence. The classification level is not determinative on the decision to release the information under the OIA.

The Public Records Act was passed by Parliament in April 2005 and replaced the Archives Act and the document and archive provisions of the Local Government Act 1974.(19) The Public Records Act now requires that at 25 years, records will need to be classified as having either open access or restricted access and will then be available for transfer to the Archive. However, the OIA's requirements on release of information prevail.

2004 freedominfo.org Global Survey Results - New Zealand

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NOTES

http://www.uni-wuerzburg.de/law/nz01000_.html

Official Information Act 1982. http://www.ombudsmen.govt.nz/official.htm

Commissioner of Police v Ombudsman [1988] 1 NZLR 385.

Office of Ombudsman Homepage: http://www.ombudsmen.govt.nz/

Alastair Morrison, "The Games People Play: Journalism and the Official Information Act," in The Official Information Act: Papers presented at a seminar held by the Legal Research Foundation, 1997.

Marie Shroff, "Behind the Official Information Act: Politics, Power and Procedure" in The Official Information Act: 1997.

Steven Price, "The Official Information Act 1982: A window on Government or curtains drawn?", Victoria University of Wellington, 2005 p.24, http://www.lawschool.vuw.ac.nz/vuw/fca/law/files/Occasional_Paper17.pdf

Ombudsman, Annual Report 2004-05.

Law Commission, Review of the Official Information Act 1982.

See Paul Bellamy, NZ Parliamentary Library, Background Paper No. 27 on Access to Official Information, May 2003.

Steven Price, id.

Inquiry misled over 'lie in unison' memo, NZ Herald, 30 July 2003.

Ombudsman's Report upon the Actions of the Department of Labour. http://www.ombudsmen.govt.nz/Own%20Motion%20Report.htm

Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987. http://www.ombudsmen.govt.nz/local.htm

Privacy Act 1993.

Homepage: http://www.privacy.org.nz/

Private Word, Issue No.20, November 1998, http://www.privacy.org.nz/privword/nov97pw.html

Cabinet Directive on Security Classification. CO (82) 14, 17 December 1982. http://www.security.govt.nz/sigd/sigd4a.html. See Security in Government Departments Manual 1994. http://www.security.govt.nz/sigd/index.html

See NZ Archives, Public Records Legislation. http://www.archives.govt.nz/about/legislation.html

 

 

Measuring Openness

Global Right to Information Rating
A country-by-country rating of laws by the Centre for Democracy and Law and Access Info.

Freedom House
The Freedom in the World report.

World Bank
Worldwide Governance Indicators

Transparency International, Corruption Perceptions Index
Measures perceptions of the degree of corruption.

Reporters Without Borders
The Press Freedom Index.