External Legal Services Provider Expenditure for June 2018

Verity Pane made this Freedom of Information request to Department of Veterans' Affairs

Response to this request is long overdue. By law, under all circumstances, Department of Veterans' Affairs should have responded by now (details). You can complain by requesting an internal review.

From: Verity Pane

Delivered

Dear Department of Veterans' Affairs,

In light of recent media reporting and admissions by the Minister in Federal Parliament that the Department spent more than $0.6m in external legal services fees in regards to just one veteran - Martin Rollins - in relation to DVA’s deliberate backdating of a rewrite of a DVA policy to exclude Mr Rollins’ receiving a benefit he was entitled to at the time of his applying for it (http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/dva-secretly-... ) there is a public interest in understanding how the Department is expending public funds on external legal services.

While the Department reports just one summary total of expenditure on external legal services in its annual reports, this is clearly insufficient and far too opaque to understand what the Department is spending on external legal costs for individual matters. While this information does indicate the Department spends between $7m - $10m on external legal services roughly every financial year, it gives no indication whether it may relate to only a small number of individual veterans or many or what the Department roughly spends per legal issue - which is important to understand when considering if the claims that the Department is combative and litigious are overstated or not.

Certainly the recent admission (initially refuted) that the Department has spend in excess of half a million dollars, litigiously, to defend this backdated change of policy to deny Martin Rollins a benefit that existed at the time he applied for it (and ironically this legal expenditure many hundreds of thousands of dollars greater than the benefit he was otherwise entitled to receive), raises public interest questions whether such excessive external legal expenditure is endemic or is a one off isolated case.

To that end, under FOI, I seek under s 17 of the FOI Act for a summary document to be created (so as to avoid unnecessary disclosure of irrelevant Departmental information) from data in the Departments financial and information management systems, to break down these global external legal services expenditure, so that greater transparency is given.

I seek a breakdown to be provided for the month of June 2018 - to be broken down to matters involving individual veterans and other. Where matters involved individual veterans, this should be further broken down to stating the cumulative external legal services expenditure per veteran involved (with each veteran referred to by pseudonym - so first veteran is Veteran A, next is Veteran B, and so on). An example of the layout I seek is below:

...............................June 2018
......................................$.............
Other
Veteran A
Veteran B
etc

Yours faithfully,

Verity Pane

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From: INFORMATION.LAW
Department of Veterans' Affairs


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Good afternoon Verity Pane,

 

FOI 24762 - FOI acknowledgment

 

We refer to your FOI request received on 27 September 2018. Please accept
this as acknowledgment of your request, noting a decision will be due by
Monday, 29 October 2018.

 

Kind Regards,

 

Information Law Team

Department of Veterans’ Affairs
E: [1][email address] | W: [2]www.dva.gov.au

 

[3]cid:image001.png@01D0027A.1DAB84F0

 

 

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From: Verity Pane

Delivered

Unnamed DVA Officer,

From the documents released under FOI by DVA about an earlier FOI, it is apparent that DVA, without notice or consent, amended my FOI scope to exclude external legal services payments for counsel (barristers) and disbursements, despite these being external legal services payments.

To be explicit, I do not consent or vary my FOI scope to exclude these payments.

Furthermore it appears DVA is being intentionally misleading by also trying to exclude artificially from scope, where it has sought a external legal services opinion to justify a litigious action against a veteran (simply because it does not occur within a specific Tribunal or Court case).

I find this unconscionable corrupt manipulation of a clear and concise FOI scope a disgusting abuse and totally without ethics.

Such a distorted manipulation would exclude, for example, the external legal services opinion that DVA paid tens of thousands of dollars for, to justify the retrospective amendment of Mr Martin Rollins’ entitlements, to unlawfully deny him access to the business support measures he was entitled to receive from DVA at the time he applied for them (and which DVA subsequently lied that about to the Minister, the Senate, and the Court, claiming the changes had taken place before he applied, when this was not the case at all). This lead to an embarrassing apology from Minister Payne to Senator Hinch, when Senator Hinch demonstrated it was she and DVA that had mislead Parliament in so claiming, using DVA’s own documents.

While your corruption knows no bounds, don’t you think even you are pushing your limits here, with these ridiculous and untenable games.

Just process the FOI as per the scope, and not ‘reinterpret’ it to be something else entirely without consent or permission.

Verity Pane

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From: INFORMATION.LAW
Department of Veterans' Affairs


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Attachment FOI 24762 Charges notice.pdf
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Good afternoon Verity Pane,

 

FOI 24762 – Charges Notice

 

Further to your FOI request received by the Department on 27 September
2018, please find attached a charges notice relating to your request.

 

Kind Regards,

 

Information Law Section | Legal Services and General Counsel Branch

Legal Assurance and Governance Division

Department of Veterans’ Affairs
E: [1][email address] | W: [2]www.dva.gov.au

 

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From: Verity Pane

Delivered

To: INFORMATION.LAW,

I find your ridiculous charges decision to levy $119 for the collection of 14 names and position numbers of the occupants of identified in this Internal Review disclosure https://www.righttoknow.org.au/request/4... unreasonable and made in bad faith.

Notably, no charges were levied for the collection of this information released in the prior FOI, which arguably would have taken longer to compile given it involved more than producing a standard position report in DVA’s human resource management information system (HRMIS) and required questions to be asked of the officers involved as to the extent of their FOI duties.

It does not take two hours to produce a position report in a HRMIS, rather less than 5 minutes (and that’s being for someone unfamiliar with the HRMIS).

I therefore challenge the charges assessment, which appears to have been made solely to impede access, and for no other purpose.

Ms Pane

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From: Verity Pane

Delivered

Attn INFORMATION.LAW,

Given so many charges decisions were issued yesterday of ridiculous amounts, the previous message was for another charges levy. Please disregard. The relevant challenge will be the next message.

Ms Pane

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From: Verity Pane

Delivered

Attn INFORMATION.LAW,

Charges levy of $413.47 made by DVA for one recent month (July 2018) of external legal services expenditure data https://www.righttoknow.org.au/request/4...

Constrast to charges levy of $690.75 made by DVA for same data, but for the whole of FY15/16, which included according to submissions made by DVA to the OAIC, the need to access offsite storage due to the age of the financial year.
https://www.righttoknow.org.au/request/4...

Again, DVA’s charges levies have little to do with the actual work involved, but rather are a measure of how much DVA dislikes the applicant and the topic of the FOI, contrary to the Act.

The wild discrepancies between calculations confirm this - the actual cost of providing one month of identical data does not equate to 2/3rds of 12 months of exactly the same type of data. Relevantly, the prior FOI was one where DVA practically refused the request for three financial years of data, because it would take 60 hours, but when scope was reduced to just one financial year, said it would take 40 hours, despite the reduction in two thirds in scope.

Again, even DVA would be hard pressed to ignore these discrepancies and clearly these grossly inflated charges levied are made in intentional bad faith, which is an ongoing consistent theme with DVA (and perhaps why your Secretary has to apologise for the Department’s conduct multiple times a year)

The charges levy is challenged. These patently obvious attempts at stopping the s 15(5)(b) clock with spurious charges is disgraceful.

Ms Pane

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Verity Pane left an annotation ()

A big issue with fees is where massive, spurious fees are imposed for something that shouldn’t take long. Also fees of any kind being imposed to access docs with a clear public interest is bad.

Imposing fees used to slow down requests and impose more process on people.

For instance, estimating a large fee and waiting for the applicant to ask that it be lowered stops the clock on the 30 day timelimit https://oaic.gov.au/freedom-of-informati...

This is something often used by unscrupulous agencies to subvert the aims and objects of the FOI Act.

When fees like this seem arbitrary they kill trust in the process and the good will of requesters.

Many honest FOI Officers make their own public interest assessment and waive fees. Once again, this is the system working at it’s best. People should be supported in making public interest information public, not charged. Where charges are imposed on public interest requests, income and wealth shape people’s ability to help our government agencies increase their transparency.

Often the person making the request is more of an expert in the topic than the FOI officer. Accordingly they often know more efficient methods to extract the information they need from the standard systems used by the agency. A more collaborative approach would promote these knowledge exchanges to extract information from government systems more efficiently. In situations where the officer ignores advice from the requester, imposed fees often seem absurd or obstructive.

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Verity Pane left an annotation ()

As stated by the Information Commissioner:
...it is implicit that a charge must not be used to unnecessarily delay access or discourage an applicant from exercising the right of access conferred by the FOI Act and that charges should fairly reflect the work involved in providing access to documents on request. Where a charge is justified, it would be in keeping with the objects of the FOI Act to ensure that the method of payment should also facilitate prompt access to the documents.

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From: INFORMATION.LAW
Department of Veterans' Affairs


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Good afternoon Verity Pane,

 

FOI 24762 – Notice of charges reconsideration

 

We acknowledge receipt of your reconsideration of charges and will notify
you of our decision within 30 days of receiving your email in accordance
with section 29(6) of the FOI Act.

 

Kind regards

 

Information Law Section | Legal Services and General Counsel Branch

Legal Assurance and Governance Division

Department of Veterans’ Affairs
E: [1][email address] | W: [2]www.dva.gov.au

 

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From: INFORMATION.LAW
Department of Veterans' Affairs


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Attachment FOI 24762 Charges Decision.pdf
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Good morning Verity Pane,

 

FOI 24762 – Charges Decision

 

Further to your FOI request received by the Department on 27 September
2018 and the Charges Notice issued to you on 24 October 2018, please now
find attached the Charges decision.

 

Kind Regards,

 

Information Law Section | Legal Services and General Counsel Branch

Legal Assurance and Governance Division

Department of Veterans’ Affairs
E: [1][email address] | W: [2]www.dva.gov.au

 

[3]cid:image001.png@01D0027A.1DAB84F0

 

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From: Verity Pane

Delivered

Attn Unanamed officer in INFORMATION.LAW,

Another day, another fraudulent and grossly exaggerated non-compliant charges decision that bears no relationships to the actual work involved.

As you would be aware, the overwhelming number of FOI applications made to DVA are personal information (PI) FOIs, which DVA is unable to levy charges on (much to your disgust, but you do the usual bad faith can’t find, or false practical refusal, or delay with fake consultations or other corrupt conduct instead to interfere with the lawful right to access).

The numbers of non-PI requests are comparatively quite small in comparison, being less than 100 per year (and interestingly the overall number of FOIs made to DVA have dropped significantly since the start of the decade, yet apparently DVA is overwhelmed despite having slightly more staff working in this area - funny that!).

The average charges levied in the past for non-PI applications where charges where applied fluctuated around $100 (although that still saw DVA make the top list of charging agencies).

FY17/18 - 20/3,261 - $2,367
FY16/17 - 57/3,095 - $4,578
FY15/16 - 78/3,338 - $6,396
FY14/15 - 72/3,436 - $5,894
FY13/14 - 84/3,681 - $6,445
FY12/13 - 67/4,245 - $11,603
FY11/12 - 119/4,401 - $7,610

This year, however, DVA levies have skyrocketed being often around the $2,000-$500 bracket, putting DVA in the number one spot for excessive charges.

This invalid decision (more on that later) is yet more of the same - another wild estimate that constantly varies in an upwards direction.

The blatant use of charges to unlawfully prevent access is a gross corruption of the aims, purposes and obligations of the FOI Act, which requires agencies to provide access at the lowest possible cost using the most economical and efficient means possible.

DVA, instead, dreams up the most inefficient and time consuming methods it can devise, then slaps on a grossly exaggerated mark-up on that, then picks a random number even higher just for fun, because the corruption never ends at DVA.

No surprise, but this will join the other hyperinflated charges for IC Review, which you fully intended to happen, so you can cause months of delay before you are directed to process this FOI as you always were required to.

Ms Pane

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