Australia's High Court to consider public interest test case

Australia's High Court is to hear a landmark case on Freedom of Information laws later this year after three of its judges agreed that a 25-year-old legal principle should be tested.

The challenge, brought by The Weekend Australian's Freedom of Information editor Michael McKinnon, could have a significant effect on citizens' rights to access government documents. The appeal follows requests made by Mr McKinnon three years ago for access to secret government documents on income tax and the first-home buyers scheme. The requests were refused by Peter Costello, who issued "conclusive certificates" ordering the documents be kept secret as a matter of public interest.

The arguments that were used to justify Mr Costello's decision arose from a case in which John Howard lost a freedom of information dispute when in Opposition in 1985. Mr Howard appealed against a refusal by the Hawke government to give access to a Treasury briefing paper that the tribunal upheld, arguing that disclosing high-level communications would inhibit future frankness and candour between public servants. The main issue the High Court will decide in the present case is whether the information tribunal made a mistake when it affirmed Mr Costello's decision that the documents should be kept secret as a matter of public interest

High Court test case on Costello FOI (The Weekend Australian, 4 February 2006)