13 September 2007
Article by Caroline Bush

In Re Stephanie Peatling and Department of Employment and Workplace Relations [2007] AATA 1011, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal considered whether the fees for processing a media outlet's request for documents under the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Cth) should be reduced on the grounds of public interest. The Tribunal decided that even though there were considerable public interest grounds to support a waiver of the fees, the countervailing "commercial benefit" that a media outlet would derive from the release of the documents outweighed the public interest in the release of the relevant documents.

The facts

Ms Peatling, in her capacity as a reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald ("SMH"), lodged an application with the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations for access to documents used by the Department in formulating the Government's "Welfare-to-Work" policy. As part of her request, Ms Peatling asked that any charges be halved "for the public interest".

The Department advised Ms Peatling that she was not entitled to a reduction of fees, as it concluded that there was no evidence that the documents would be made available to the public and therefore she had not shown how the provision of the documents in question would benefit the public. The Department also found that the payment of the fee would not cause financial hardship to the SMH.

Following an unsuccessful internal review of the decision Ms Peatling lodged an application with the Tribunal for a review of the internal review decision.

The Legislative framework

The issue for the Tribunal was whether the charges should have been reduced under section 29(5) of the Act.

Section 29(5) of the Act says:
"(5) Without limiting the matters the agency or Minister may take into account in determining whether or not to reduce or not impose the charge, the agency or Minister must take into account:
  • whether the payment of the charge, or part of it, would cause financial hardship to the applicant, or to a person on whose behalf the application was made; and