In a decision handed down on 29 September 2017, the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal set aside Wollondilly Shire Council’s decision to withhold access to CCTV footage requested by a member of the public. The Tribunal’s decision highlights the need for local councils to be aware of their obligations under the GIPA Act and to make all reasonable attempts to facilitate access to information.
On 4 July 2016, Ms Kelli Meldru entered the Customer Service foyer of Wollondilly Shire Council to obtain access to certain documents. An incident then occurred which the Applicant claims she was detained illegally by Council staff, and the local police were called.
On 26 October 2016, Council received an access application under the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009 (“GIPA Act”) from the Applicant, in part seeking video surveillance from 4 July 2016 of the Council Foyer. By notice of 15 November 2016, Council identified several sections of footage as being the information sought by the Applicant, but declined access to one particular section on the basis that the video footage captured images of third parties attending Council for their personal business.
Ms Meldru subsequently sought administrative review of the Respondent’s decision to refuse her access to the footage.
Consideration and finding
Council’s evidence included a statement outlining Ms Meldru’s “pattern of unreasonable behaviour”, including multiple requests for information, “unreasonable and persistent contact with councillors”, “unreasonable demands and a lack of cooperation” and various incidents where the police were called to attend the Council’s premises. Concerning the withheld footage in question, Council claimed it did not have the resources to edit the footage to obscure the images of third parties.
Ms Meldru’s submissions relied heavily on the overriding public interest favouring disclosure of information.
Senior Member Dinnen held that there was no evidence before him to support the view the Applicant’s conflicts with the Respondent would increase the likelihood that disclosure of the footage would reveal an individual’s personal information or breach an information protection principle. Instead, she found Ms Meldru’s evidence of events on 4 July 2016 was a relevant consideration in favour of disclosure of the footage.
In applying the balancing exercise required by the GIPA Act, the Senior Member concluded the relevant public interest considerations favouring disclosure were:
The general public interest;
That the disclosure of the information could reasonably be expected to inform the public about the operations of agencies and their policies and practices for dealing with members of the public. Specifically, the information concerns Council’s customer service foyer and would clearly disclose Council’s interactions with the public; and
That the information is personal information of the person to who it is to be disclosed. The video footage contained the image of the Applicant and therefore contains her personal information.
Comments on the decision
The Tribunal afforded the above public interest considerations in favour of disclosure significant weight, demonstrating the object of the GIPA Act, which is to open government information to the public in order to maintain and advance responsible and representative democratic Government that is open, accountable, fair and effective.
While Wollondilly Shire Council submitted their decision to withhold the footage, which contained visual images of persons other than the Applicant, was done to protect those individuals’ personal information, Senior Member Dinnen rejected this, noting Council’s limited inquiries to ascertain to what extent the footage could be edited so as to overcome its concerns.
Tips for Local Government
This case again confirms the readiness of Tribunals to interpret GIPA matters in favour of applicants. With the GIPA Act establishing a firm presumption in favour of disclosure of information, care is needed in order to best protect confidential information that may be collected during internal, as well as external, investigations into workplace conduct issues.
Meldru v Wollondilly Shire Council  NSWCATAD 292 (29 September 2017)
Aimee Saaib is the Practice Manager of O'Connell Workplace Relations and has considerable experience in conducting impartial, third-party investigations with clients in the public sector, local government and private sector. She is currently completing a further course of study at UTS Law School.