Witness Statements Protected in Australia Post FOI Bid

A recent decision of the Australian Information Commissioner has confirmed that certain categories of internal documents cannot generally be forced to be the subject of a disclosure process.

The decision, which was handed down by Commissioner Tim Pilgrim on April 5, 2017, arose from a refusal by Australia Post to produce documents to a former employee, identified for the purpose of the proceedings as "LC".

LC had complained to his former employer that he had heard two managers making "derogatory comments" about him, and reported that he had heard from an HR officer that the managers would be disciplined for their actions. Accordingly, LC issued a Freedom of Information (FOI) request seeking documents pertaining to Australia Post's investigations, with a view to identifying what disciplinary action would be taken.

Australia Post claims documents exempt

However, the requested documents were not produced by Australia Post, which claimed that the materials were exempt from production under sections 47E(c) and 47F of the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Cth).

Section 47E(c) of the Act provides that documents are not required to be produced if they would or could "have a substantial adverse effect on the management or assessment of personnel by the Commonwealth or by an agency". Meanwhile, section 47F states that documents need not be produced if they would unreasonably reveal personal information about any person, including a deceased person.

LC requested a review of the FOI decision. However, Commissioner Pilgrim agreed with Australia Post's refusal to produce the documents, in accordance with the "management functions" exemption set out in section 47E(c).

Release of documents would “impede investigations”

In these circumstances, the documents related to both managing and assessing personnel because they related to complaints by employees and associated disciplinary proceedings.

Specifically, Commissioner Pilgrim found that documents including witness statements and counselling or disciplinary action documents directly related to the management functions of an organisation, and accordingly could "reasonably be expected to have a substantial adverse effect" on those functions.

In particular, Commissioner Pilgrim concluded that permitting the release of these documents would impede the proper progress of investigations, because there was a very reasonable prospect that it would put people off making complaints or providing honest witness statements during enquiries, particularly over concerns of "backlash" from co-workers and supervisors or senior employees.

Having regard to the nature of Australia Post's business, Commissioner Pilgrim also found that public interest dictated that Australia Post and other government organisations should be able to protect the integrity of their code of conduct complaint processes.

The wider impact on workplace investigations

The recent decision in LC and Australia Post highlights the importance of employers being able to maintain the integrity, privacy and confidentiality of their internal disciplinary processes. In particular, witnesses and complainants can be reassured that anything they divulge and which is recorded during the provision of interviews cannot be easily disclosed on the basis of FOI requests.

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