Access to records under the Archives Act

The Archives Act 1983 governs access to Commonwealth archival records.

Under the Act you can access most Commonwealth records in the open access period.

When does the open access period start?

The majority of archival records enter the open access period after 20 years. Cabinet notebooks enter the open access period after 30 years. Census data is not released until 99 years after the census date. 

Does the Archives Act apply to all records in the open access period?

The Act applies to most records except:

  • court records
  • some records of Parliament
  • some records of governors-general
  • some records held by other national collecting institutions, such as the Australian War Memorial and the National Library of Australia

You have a right of access to most other records in the open access period. This includes records held by government agencies.

Are all records available when they reach the open access period?

Under the Archives Act, most records are available for public access when they reach the open access period. Some are exempt, as defined in section 33 of the Act.

The National Archives assesses records to identify and withhold exempt information. Sometimes this is done in consultation with departments and agencies.

Why is information withheld?

Under the Archives Act we are required to release as much information as possible.

The information we exempt from public access falls into two broad areas:

  • Personal information
  • Information about the security of the Commonwealth and its residents

Some personal information may require exemption for at least the lifetime of the individual. This can include medical histories, or details of personal relationships.

A record may be withheld if its disclosure could adversely affect Australia's defence, security or international relations. This could include 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 government.

How often is exempt information withheld?

Most records are wholly released for public access. Less than 2% are partially released. A very small percentage of records, less than 0.25%, are wholly withheld. This is because they consist entirely of exempt information.

Is there a limit on the number of applications I can submit?

There is no limit on the number of applications you can submit. We are normally required to give you a decision within the 'consideration period' of 90 business days. If you have more than 25 current applications then the consideration period can be extended.

The consideration period can also be extended with the applicant's agreement in other circumstances. This ensures our resources are used equitably to service applications from all researchers.

How long does the examination of records take?

While most examination is completed within a month, it may take up to 90 business days or longer to examine some files. We will let you know if there are delays.

If we have not given you a decision within 90 business days or within the extended consideration period we have notified you about, we are deemed to have refused you access.

We will contact you if this occurs.

You can appeal this deemed refusal of access.

Even if we are deemed to have refused you access, we will continue processing your application. When it is complete, we will give you the final decision.

If the final decision is to withhold access to records, in whole or in part, you can generally appeal our decision.

Refer to What to do if we refuse you access for more information on your rights of appeal.

How do I know if information has been withheld?

If the records you have applied to see are exempted from public access, either in part or in full, we will send you a written statement of reasons. This will tell you what information has been exempted, the exemption category or categories that apply and why they apply.

Details of all records containing exempt information are listed on RecordSearch. The access status will show 'closed' or 'open with exception'. The reason for restriction will give the exemption category or categories.

What can I do if information has been withheld?

You can apply to have the National Archives review the decision. This process is known as internal reconsideration. If we confirm the decision you may appeal to the independent Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) to review our decision. Find out what to do if we refuse you access.

How much do I have to pay?

There is no charge for access to records or for applying to the National Archives to review our decision. If you appeal to the AAT, you will need to pay an application fee.

You will have to pay copying charges if you want us to provide copies of records.

More information