It should be noted from the outset that in practice fees for making FOI requests were largely abolished under the Freedom of Information Act 2014. In general, no fee whatsoever is charged for applications under the 2014 Act by an individual for their personal information. This applies at all stages the FOI process, including with respect to a review by the Information Commissioner. Based on 2018 figures, this category amounts to almost 60% of all requests.
With respect to non-personal requests, application fees at the initial stage of the process were abolished under the 2014 Act. Fees of €30 and €50 respectively apply to internal reviews and reviews by the Information Commissioner, although these can be reduced to €10 and €15 respectively, or waived, where a requester holds a medical card. Based on 2018 figures, over 97% of non-personal requests were satisfactorily handled without the need for review, and as such no application fee was charged.
Available statistics do not dis-aggregate internal reviews of requests for personal information, to which no fee applies, and internal reviews of non-personal requests, nor are instances highlighted where reduced fees or a fee waiver applied, therefore it is not possible to state a precise sum recouped in application fees. Given that, in 2018, 40% of requests were for non-personal information, 1,082 internal reviews overall were carried out by public bodies, and the Commissioner carried out 328 reviews to which an application fee potentially applied, the total figure for all application fees paid in that year may be estimated at well below €40,000.
The legislation also provides for search and retrieval fees to be charged where a non-personal FOI request requires a minimum of five hours of work merely locating and gathering records. Therefore, a fee of this nature is only charged where a non-personal request is relatively large, and does not take account of the totality of the work involved in responding, but only the search and retrieval portion. The fee payable by a requester is capped at a maximum of €500, even where the cost of the work involved may exceed this, and may in appropriate cases be waived entirely on public interest grounds. Moreover, it should be noted that under the 2014 Act officials are obliged to assist requesters where appropriate in making a more focused request so as to meet their objectives by the most efficient possible means, and that there is nothing to prevent requesters making follow-up requests for additional information. No figures are available at present to confirm the exact proportion of non-personal requests that attracted a fee, or the total sum recouped by way of search and retrieval charges.
The final costing of a proposal to remove the remaining FOI fee provisions must also take account of the potential knock-on costs to the exchequer arising out of likely demands on the resources of both public bodies and the Information Commissioner through increased usage of their respective review functions, as well as, in the case of search and retrieval fees, the likely requirement to process a larger amount of more resource-intensive requests. An analysis of this nature has not been carried out to date, and as such no estimate can be provided in this regard.
As matters stand, administering the Freedom of Information system in the context of ever-increasing demand presents a significant administrative and resourcing challenge to public bodies. Since 2013, the last full year of operation for the previous legislation, the number of FOI requests received by public bodies has almost doubled to a total of 36,896 requests in 2018. The abolition of fees in most cases has been a significant contributory factor to this increase. In order to support this system, in 2019 the Office of the Information Commissioner was allocated a dedicated program budget of €3,292,000 out of the total allocation of €11,718,000 to the Ombudsman group, within which it shares certain support resources.
Estimating the true cost of the Freedom of Information system within public bodies has historically proven difficult, as doing so has been taken as necessitating an additional administrative burden on already hard-pressed decision makers to accurately record and collate the time spent on each request at various levels of seniority, as well as other associated costs. In this regard, the Central Policy Unit for Freedom of Information at my Department has recently initiated a project aiming at measuring the cost to the exchequer of administering FOI in a robust and user friendly manner. The methodology remains under development, however it is intended that a figure for the true cost of FOI should be available by mid-2020. Assuming that the number of requests continues on previous trends, it may be anticipated even at this juncture that the total cost will run well into eight figures.