Costs and fees
Freedom of Information Act 2000
When a public authority responds to a request for information under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, they necessarily incur costs. Some of these costs can be recovered from the requester in the form of fees, and others are taken into account when determining whether the request may be refused under section 12.
Responding to a request for information can be seen as having three parts. The first two of these were distinguished in EA/2009/0029.
The first part consists of the administrative act of finding the information, as set out in regulation 4 of SI 2004/3244:
- determining whether [the authority] holds the information,
- locating the information, or a document which may contain the information,
- retrieving the information, or a document which may contain the information, and
- extracting the information from a document containing it.
The second part consists of considering policy-based exemptions and the public interest, and separating exempt parts of the retrieved information.
The third part consists of packaging the information and sending it to the requester, as set out in regulations 6 and 7 of SI 2004/3244:
- informing the person making the request whether it holds the information, and
- communicating the information to the person making the request.
Specifically, this includes:
- complying with any obligation under section 11(1) of the 2000 Act as to the means or form of communicating the information,
- reproducing any document containing the information, and
- postage and other forms of transmitting the information.
The three parts are treated differently for different purposes. For the purposes of section 12, only costs in the first part count towards determining whether the cost of the request is excessive. For these purposes, staff time is counted at a constant £25/hour, whatever it actually costs (regulation 4).
For requests that fall within the section 12 limit, authorities are allowed to charge a fee, but only up to the costs expected to be incurred in the third part, and not including staff costs (regulation 6).
Finally, for requests that exceed the section 12 limit, an authority is allowed to reply, and to charge a fee amounting to the costs expected to be incurred in both the first and third parts, this time including staff costs (regulation 7).
Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002
The situation is rather different under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002, where the fees and cost limit are set by SSI 2004/376 and SSI 2004/467. Scottish public authorities are allowed to count all costs they expect to incur in responding to a request, with the exception of costs expected to be incurred in:
- determining whether the authority holds the information, and
- deciding whether the information is exempt (and whether it should be released even so).
Staff time can only be counted at a maximum of £15/hour.
Having determined the projected cost of a request, a Scottish public authority must answer the request without charge if the cost is £100 or less. If the cost is between £100 and £600, the authority can charge a fee of up to 10% of the difference between the projected cost and £100. If the cost is over £600, the authority can refuse to answer it, or it can charge a fee of up to £50 plus the difference between the projected cost and £600.
The Scottish Information Commissioner has some useful guidance on this subject.