Friday, November 29, 2013

Ireland: Expansion of fees for freedom of information requests unjustified


28 November 2013

ARTICLE 19 understands that the Government of Ireland has issued a press release justifying the expansion of stringent fees on Freedom of Information Act requests by referring to the ARTICLE 19 Model Freedom of Information Law, developed in 1999. This justification represents a fundamental misunderstanding of both the Model Law and international law.

ARTICLE 19 strongly opposes the current Irish policy allowing for imposition of fees for making requests as well as the pending bill before the Dail to expand fees by allowing requests to be split and charged for each facet. We believe that it violates international law by placing unreasonable restrictions on the right of all persons to access information held by government bodies.

We note that following the adoption of the controversial amendments in 2003, the number of requests for non-personal information plummeted. This shows that the imposition of fees has had a profound affect on the right to information in Ireland.

The Irish Government position does not accurately reflect the text of the Model Law. ARTICLE 19 states in the Model Law that governments may impose fees for requests that are likely to result in the provision to the requestor of a large number of documents but those fees are only limited to the costs of copying and sending the files and should be waived in cases of public interest. We also state that fees should not be imposed for requests where that fee is less than the cost of processing the payment. In subsequent documents and legal reviews we have drafted since we first developed the Model Law, we have further elaborated on this section to include a waiver of all fees for those who are below poverty income levels. None of these protections are found in the draft bill.

We also note that this position is supported by the UN Human Rights Committee in General Comment 34 on Article 19 which states that “Fees for requests for information should not be such as to constitute an unreasonable impediment to access to information.” Further, the Council of Europe Convention on Access to Official Documents states “A fee may be charged to the applicant for a copy of the official document, which should be reasonable and not exceed the actual costs of reproduction and delivery of the document.”