Request by son for access to mother’s child welfare file

Privacy
Legislation:
Official Information Act 1982
Section 9
Legislation display text:
Official Information Act 1982, s 9(2)(a)
Agency:
Department of Social Welfare
Ombudsman:
Hon Anand Satyanand
Case number(s):
A6553
Issue date:
Language:
English

Request by adult son for access to natural mother’s child welfare file—son placed for adoption—natural mother now deceased—information withheld to protect privacy—relevance of requester’s relationship to subject of information considered in determining strength of privacy interest—information about mother made available in summary form

In this case, the adult son of an intellectually handicapped woman, who had come to the notice of the then Child Welfare Division during her childhood and adolescence in the 1950s and 1960s, sought access to his mother’s file, now held by the Department of Social Welfare. The requester had been placed at birth with extended family members who subsequently adopted him. His natural mother had died, and he wanted to learn more about her life.

The Department provided him with a one-page summary of information about his mother, but declined to allow him to inspect the file in reliance upon section 9(2)(a) of the OIA.

The investigation established that most of the information on the file was personal information about the requester’s mother. It consisted of social workers’ case notes and incident reports, school reports, medical reports and psychiatric and psychological reports. These documents contained information about the subject’s personality, character, behaviour, intelligence, health and scholastic and social progress. Some documents related to practical issues such as travel, benefits, and wardrobe requirements. However, the file also contained a considerable amount of information about other individuals, frequently interwoven with information about the requester’s mother, or used as ‘backing sheets’ to support small or fragile documents.

Given that the person who was the subject of the information was the requester’s mother, that she was now deceased, and that the information was some 30 years old, it was concluded, after consultation with the Privacy Commissioner, that a limited release of information would not infringe the privacy interests in this material. However, to overcome the difficulties caused by the intermingling of information on the file, material relating to the requester’s mother was extracted and provided in the form of a detailed summary.

This case note is published under the authority of the Ombudsmen Rules 1989. It sets out an Ombudsman’s view on the facts of a particular case. It should not be taken as establishing any legal precedent that would bind an Ombudsman in future.

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