Are your online documents readily accessible?

With the commencement of the Simpler Regulatory System company reporting changes, many companies can be expected to save printing and mailing costs by making annual reports available online.

A typical condition imposed by laws when permitting documents to be given to your shareholders or customers by making them available online for reading or downloading (rather than requiring the mailing of a hard (printed) copy or the emailing or faxing of an electronic copy) is that they be "readily accessible". (See section 314(1AA)(b) Corporations Act).

"Readily accessible" means more than being available for reading or download by anyone who has internet access. The expression has its source in Section 9(1)(a) of the Electronic Transactions Act 1999 (Cth) where it is part of the phrase "readily accessible so as to
be useable for subsequent reference".

The readily accessible requirement appears to have been included to allow for changes in technology which can mean that over time different standards of communication can be become incompatible with later systems. Provided that the system used to transfer the information is relatively standard at the time of publication and is not difficult to use, then it should satisfy this test. For example, the PDF file format is now standard and the Adobe Acrobat Reader required to read it is freely available (and free). Use of a file format that was difficult to open would mean that the document is not "readily accessible".

As the legality of the giving of the document should not be questioned through lack of access, the direct address on the web site where the documents may be accessed should remain static for as long as they are relevant.

But accessibility may also be argued in the future to include whether:
•    the writing in the document is legible when viewed;
•    the document incorporates any image, message, advertisement or other feature that distracts the reader or reduces the reader’s ability to understand the document;
•    if an image, message, advertisement or other feature accompanies or is associated with the document, the reader is readily able to distinguish the image, message, advertisement or other feature from the document;
•    the reader can readily scroll through the whole of the document.

As more businesses make documents available on their website, consideration should be given as to whether they are readily accessible by looking at the following factors:

  • the ability of readers to find the document (is there a direct link, adequate navigation, reference on a site map or index?)
  • the file format of the document (HTML, PDF, Word, RTF or all?)
  • the ability of onscreen readers to increase the font size
  • for longer documents, the availablity of a summary or a tool such as a drop down list to find relevant parts of the document.

For example, the Alinta Scheme Booklet  as presented online seems to offer readers a range of features which may make it easier to read a complex legal document on their computer screen if they do not want to print or save it.

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