Privacy Law and Policy Reporter
Dr Fotheringham, a senior lecturer in English at the University of Queensland, sought access to hospital records concerning Violet Christina Davis who for 33 years before her death in 1952 resided in institutions controlled by the respondent agency. Dr Fotheringham was preparing a biography of her husband Arthur Hoey Davis (the author, 'Steele Rudd'). The next of kin of Mrs Davis, her grand-daughter, did not agree to the disclosure. The agency refused access.
The Act provides in s 44(1) that 'Matter is exempt matter if its disclosure would disclose information concerning the personal affairs of a person, whether living or dead, unless its disclosure would, on balance, be in the public interest.' It was not disputed that the document in question concerned the personal affairs of Mrs Davis. Dr Fotheringham argued that it was in the public interest to 'put an end to rumours concerning the nature of the illness suffered by Violet Christina Davis, and whether she received support from her family and in particular Arther Hoey Davis.' The Commissioner considered that the issue was whether disclosure of Mrs Davis' medical records was in the public interest because Mr Davis was 'a major figure in Queensland's literary and cultural history'.
The Commissioner ultimately concluded that the public interest considerations favouring disclosure were not sufficiently strong to justify intrusion into Mrs Davis' medical records. Elements in the Commissioner's reasoning were:
The Commissioner concluded that 'the public interest considerations favouring disclosure ... are not sufficiently strong to justify intrusion into the medical records' of Mrs Davis.
The Commissioner's decision, which identifying factors taken into account in the s 44(1) test in respect of deceased persons, gives little insight into why the decision against disclosure was reached in this instance. The significance of the next of kin's opposition, and the age of the documents, for example, are left open to speculation. It is also not clear from the decision whether information about mental illness is regarded as having a higher degree of sensitivity than most other information about a person's personal affairs, such that the public interest considerations must be accordingly stronger before publication is justified. For example, we might ask whether the Commissioner would have reached the same conclusion if Mrs Davis' business dealings were the subject of the documents.