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How to obtain personal information held by government departments

Introduction

Privacy issues in New Zealand are governed by the PRIVACY ACT 1993. This Act was introduced to meet the need for privacy and to establish laws for protecting data in New Zealand.

The Act establishes principles to guide the collection, use and disclosure by public and private organisations of information relating to individuals ("personal information"). The Act also appoints a Privacy Commissioner to deal with any complaints.

Your right to have access to your personal information

If a government department holds personal information about you that can be readily retrieved, you are entitled:

  • to obtain confirmation from the department about whether or not it has the information, and
  • to have access to that information

How do I request the information?

If you wish to request any information held about you by a government department (or any other public or private agency), contact the relevant department directly and request the information you require.

You can make your request either orally or in writing.

You should be as precise as possible in your request. But you do not need to refer to the PRIVACY ACT 1993.

The department must respond to your request as soon as is practicable, and in any case within at least 20 working days of receiving it.

Will I have to pay anything?

This information is generally free unless the department has been authorised by the Privacy Commissioner to charge for the information.

In what form will the department provide the information?

If there are no grounds for not releasing the information (see below), the department will issue the information in one of the following ways:

  • a copy of a document
  • a computer printout of the information
  • an extract or summary of the information
  • an oral account of the information

When can the department refuse my request?

There are certain circumstances in which government departments can deny you access to the information – for example, if supplying the information would prejudice national security, defence, international relations, the maintenance of law and order, or someone's safety.

Other reasons for which information could be withheld are to protect trade secrets or someone's privacy, and also to maintain legal professional privilege (that is, the right of lawyers to refuse to disclose information given to them by their clients).

What can I do if the department refuses to give me the information?

If the information is withheld from you and you are not satisfied with the reasons given, you can complain to the Privacy Commissioner: see How to complain to the Privacy Commissioner).

What if the information isn't correct?

If you think that information to which you've gained access is incorrect, you have the right to request that the department correct it. If they do not agree to correct it, you have the right to have a statement attached to the information that notes the correction you requested.

Cautionary notes
  • The Office of the Privacy Commissioner can give you more detailed information on the privacy principles in the Act and your rights under them. You may also wish to obtain legal advice on your rights under the Act.

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