Thirty-year rule

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The "thirty-year rule" is the informal name given to laws in the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, and Australia that provide that certain government documents will be released publicly thirty years after they were created. Other countries' national archives also adhere to a thirty-year rule for the release of government documents.

United Kingdom[edit]

In the United Kingdom, the Public Records Act 1958 stated that "Public records...other than those to which members of the public have had access before their transfer...shall not be available for public inspection until they have been in existence for fifty years or such other the Lord Chancellor may,...for the time being prescribe as respects any particular class of public records";[1] the closure period was reduced from fifty to thirty years by an amending act of 1967, passed during Harold Wilson's government. Among those who had repeatedly urged the scrapping of the fifty-year rule was the historian A. J. P. Taylor.

There were two elements to the rule: the first required that records be transferred from government departments to the Public Record Office (now The National Archives) after thirty years unless specific exemptions were given (by the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Council on Public Records); the second that they would be opened to public access at the same time unless their release was deemed likely to cause "damage to the country's image, national security or foreign relations".

Significant changes were made to the rules as a consequence of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) (which came into full effect on 1 January 2005). FOIA essentially removed the second of the thirty-year rules (the access one), and replaced it with provisions allowing citizens to request a wide range of information before any time limit has expired; and also removed some of the exemptions which had previously applied at the thirty-year point. After thirty years, records are transferred to The National Archives, and are reviewed under FOIA to see if they should be opened. The only rationale for keeping them closed within The National Archives is if a FOIA exemption applies.

As a result of this change, releases now happen monthly, rather than annually, and include more recent events, rather than only those over thirty years old.

An independent inquiry chaired by Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, recommended in January 2009 that the last restrictions on the release of information, such as Cabinet minutes, should be reduced to a fifteen-year embargo and phased in over a 15-year period.[2]

Change to a twenty-year rule[edit]

Under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, the UK Government started moving towards a twenty-year rule. Files from 1983 were released in August 2013 rather than January 2014 as would previously have been the case, and files from 1984 in January 2014. There will continue to be two releases per year until 2022 when the National Archives will receive the files from 2001 and 2002, having caught up with the transition.[3]


In Australia, the thirty-year rule applied to Commonwealth (federal) government records, except for Cabinet handbooks (closed for fifty years) and raw census records (closed for 99 years). These periods were set out in the Archives Act 1983.

In 2009, the Archives Act was amended to reduce the closed period from thirty to twenty years, with Cabinet notebooks reduced from fifty to thirty years. Census records remain closed for 99 years to protect the privacy of individuals.[4]

Cabinet papers for a full year are released on 1 January each year. From 2011, two years of cabinet papers and three years of cabinet notebooks are released together until 2020 when the new periods are reached.


Israel adopted the British model of a thirty-year rule as the basis for reviewing and declassifying its foreign policy documents.[5] Israeli declassification policy is based on the Archives law of 1955. The principle of the law is that all material is to be released after thirty years, subject to limitations based on damage to state security, foreign policy or personal privacy. In practice this means that declassification of documents are fixed at different periods based on type of material and date of production.[6]

The original law has been modified and updated a number of times.[6] Following a 2010 update of the legislation, the office of the Prime Minister released as statement explaining that "the new regulations shorten the period after which non-security-related material may be viewed, from 30 to 15 years, while lengthening the confidentiality period of certain defense-related documents to 70 years in cases in which Israel's security conditions require it".[7]


The German Federal Archives generally makes its holdings available after 30 years. Exceptions are for personnel files, which are opened only 10 years after the death of the individual or 100 years after the person's birth if the date of death is unknown, and records dealing with taxation, credit, and banking, which are sealed for 60 years.

Additionally, Federal Archives holdings originating with the Communist Party and communist organizations of the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) have been available for decades with almost no limitations. The Federal Archives has also worked to make East German government records available with a minimum of time limitation. In any event, in October 2020, 30 years will have passed since the dissolution of the GDR.[8]

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