In a recent case the Privacy Commissioner upheld an agency’s refusal to grant access to information. This was on the basis that the agency reasonably believed release of the information would create a significant likelihood of serious harassment.

A person had sought release of records showing who had accessed her records held by the agency and what was accessed and when. The agency provided a log of what was accessed and when, but withheld the names of employees who had accessed the records. To justify withholding the employee names the agency relied on s49(1)(a)(ii) of the Privacy Act. That provision allows an agency to withhold the information if there is a significant likelihood of harassment of an individual.

The agency was asked by the Privacy Commissioner why they held the view that release of the employees’ names would raise such a risk. The agency was able to point to prior conduct by the woman of attempting to contact employees on social media, self-harm threats and repeated contact which caused serious distress.

The Privacy Commissioner agreed with the agency that this meant their decision to withhold the information was reasonable, as there was a significant likelihood of serious harassment in this situation.

This ground for withholding the release of information will not be easy to satisfy, but in this case there was enough prior evidence to show that the risk was real and significant.

The Privacy Commissioner did remind the agency that they should have told the woman both the reason for withholding the information and the basis for that eg a brief summary of the evidence it has relied on when they declined the release, ie not just quoting the ground in the Act.

Dealing correctly with privacy requests is an important requirement and it pays to get advice from an expert to ensure the correct approach is taken in all respects.


Alan Knowsley