Access Examination

Under the Archives Act 1983, most Commonwealth records are available to be accessed by the public once they enter the open access period unless they contain material that falls into certain exemption categories under section 33 of the Archives Act.

When a record is requested by a member of the public, it is examined to determine whether it is suitable for release. Under the Archives Act we are required to release as much information as possible. Most records in the open access period are released without any exemptions (96.5%). Only a small percentage are released with some material exempted (3%). Only 0.5% of records are wholly exempted from public access.

Specialist National Archives’ staff are delegated under the Archives Act to examine records and make decisions about whether they can be released. When reviewing records for any continuing sensitivities, the Archives examiner takes into account which agency created the record, the circumstances under which the information was created or obtained, and the age of the information. To promote objectivity and consistency in decision making, examiners refer to guidelines on the interpretation and application of the Archives Act.

While most examination is completed within a month, it may take up to 90 business days and sometimes longer to examine some files. If we have not given you a decision within 90 business days we are deemed to have refused you access and you may appeal.

We understand that the time required to examine records may mean that some researchers no longer require access to the records they requested. If you no longer need the records you have requested, please notify us at ref@naa.gov.au.

Under section 35 of the Archives Act, the National Archives has formally documented arrangements with agencies responsible for national security, defence, and international relations to provide advice to the Archives on whether information in records remains sensitive.

If we refuse access, it is usually because the records contain exempt information or information that is not in the open access period. The information we exempt from public access falls into two broad areas:

    Personal information – The National Archives holds many records that document a person's interaction with Government. These records often contain sensitive personal information that requires exemption for at least the lifetime of the individual (e.g. medical histories, or details of personal relationships).

    Information about the security of the Commonwealth and its residents – The National Archives holds highly-classified records, and consults with the agencies that created these records prior to their release. If the release of information could adversely affect Australia's defence, security or international relations (e.g. details of the design and construction of weapons, or records about intelligence-gathering, or information passed to the Australian government in confidence by a foreign entity) it will be withheld.

If we exempt any information on a record, we provide a statement of reasons to justify the exemption of the information.

Progress in reducing the backlog

In October 2013, the National Archives established a special access examination taskforce in the Canberra office to review and examine overdue applications submitted prior to 1 October 2013. Funding for the Access Examination Taskforce (4FTE) within the Declassification Unit, ceased on 31 December 2015.

Prior to the end of December the taskforce during its three iterations resolved more than 66 per cent of the backlog of more than 20,000 applications. As at 31 March 2019, only 5,000 applications submitted prior to 1 October remain to be processed, with just over 4,700 unique records still awaiting examination (there are a number of records that have been requested by more than one researcher). The remaining applications continue to be addressed within business-as-usual operational resources.

Despite concerted efforts, there remain more than 24,500 current applications to be processed by the National Archives. Work continues to streamline processes to improve efficiency and increase the number of items examined.

Examination progress for applications submitted each financial year, as at 31 March 2019


*Year-to-date

Archives Act changes to improve access to Commonwealth records

Every year, the National Archives receives tens of thousands of applications for access to records in its collection. There is currently no limit on the number of applications that can be lodged, or the number of records that can be requested, by any one applicant. A few high volume or complex applications, often lodged by just a handful of individuals, currently tie up the bulk of available resources. This leaves a reduced capacity to process access requests for a small number of records, made by the vast majority of applicants.

Of the almost 25,000 applications currently being processed, more than 12,700 applications were made by only 4 individuals. This accounts for a significant proportion of the applications currently under consideration, as can be seen in the pie chart below.

Breakdown of number of applications – by high volume applicant group – as at 31 March 2019

Recent legislative changes to the Archives Act will enable the National Archives to better manage these high volume applications, freeing up staff to service more low volume access applications and proactively examine more records for public release. The changes came into effect on 25 April 2019, six months from Royal Assent on 25 October 2018.

The key changes are:

  • extending the timeframe within which the National Archives is required to respond to applications for access from 90 calendar days to 90 business days
  • providing the Director-General of the National Archives with the ability to extend the timeframe for processing applications for access by mutual agreement with the applicant
  • giving the Director-General of the National Archives the power to extend the timeframe for processing applications for access where more than 25 records are requested in accordance with a formula set out in the legislation
  • extending the timeframe for the National Archives to respond to an application for internal reconsideration from 14 calendar days to 30 business days
  • other amendments of an administrative nature that do not affect rights of access to records.

Further information can be found in Amendments made to the access provisions of the Archives Act 1983

Newly opened records

No items have been processed in the last 28 days.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019