Although the Official Information Act (OIA) allows ministries to fix a charge when members of the public and media request information, there is no flat fee for making an application.
The Office of the Ombudsman said the ministry can charge a fee in cases where it incurs a cost through meeting the applicant’s request.
“Any such charge shall be reasonable and regard may be had to the cost of the labour and materials involved in making the information available. The responsibility for deciding on whether to charge or not to charge lies with the relevant person authorised by the Head of Ministry to decide the request.”
Assistant Ombudsman Jeannine Daniel said the Government does not yet have a guideline on charging which provides a basis for assessing whether a proposed charge is reasonable.
“Given our limited resources this remains a difficulty, however, it is an issue the Office of the Ombudsman is keen to address.”
She said that as an alternative to charging, a ministry could consider providing the information in an alternative form, such as allowing the requester to inspect the original documents if providing copies would require a lot of photocopying.
“A ministry may also want to consider if the charge should be waived or reduced, for example, if to do so would be in the public interest or whether payment of a charge might cause the requester financial hardship.”
The Office said it is of the view that charges cannot be fixed for time spent or expenses incurred deciding on whether or not information can be made available.
“A ministry should not consider whether and how much to charge for the release of information until it has decided whether (and to what extent) information can be made available.”
It also said a ministry (or Crown Agency covered by the Official Information Act) must not charge for information without advising the requester ahead of time.
All advice about the charge should explain how it is estimated or calculated and a ministry must tell the requester of the right to complain to the Ombudsman about the charge or estimated charge.
Daniel said the Office has not received any complaints regarding a government ministry’s decision to impose charges for the provision of official information.
CINews currently has an outstanding OIA request with the Ministry of Marine Resources, with regards to details of a settlement made with an El Salvadorian fishing company over an incident of illegal fishing in the nation’s exclusive economic zone.