Under the Privacy Act, individuals can request access to personal information that an agency holds about them. This generally includes files, emails, or any physical documents.

However, the right to access personal information goes further, to include what is held in a person’s mind.

One common situation where this type of information is sought relates to job references.

The Privacy Commissioner investigated a complaint where a woman applied for a job and asked a former manager to be her referee. The woman did not get the role, and suspected that the former manager had given her a bad reference.

When she requested a copy of what the manager had said, she was declined, on the basis that the reference had been verbal and nothing was written down.

The Commissioner explained to the manager’s employer that information that is held in the mind of an employee may be subject to an access request. If the information in a person’s mind is both personal information, and readily retrievable, then it must be provided upon request.

How recently the conversation took place, and the particular circumstances in which it did, will affect how “readily retrievable” the information is.

The agency accepted the Commissioner’s finding, and the manager provided a summary of the verbal reference.

It is important that agencies understand in what circumstances they must provide personal information to a requester, and when an exception applies.

If there are concerns about a request for access to information, it is wise to speak with a professional experienced in the area.

Leading law firms committed to helping clients cost-effectively will have a range of fixed-priced Initial Consultations to suit most people’s needs in quickly learning what their options are.  At Rainey Collins we have an experienced team who can answer your questions and put you on the right track.


Alan Knowsley
Privacy Lawyer