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Ms P and Cork City Council (FOI Act 2014)

Case Number: 170082

Whether the Council was justified in its decision to charge a fee of €450 for the search and retrieval of records relating to a section of the Sarsfield Road Fly-over

Conducted in accordance with section 22(2) of the FOI Act by Stephen Rafferty, Senior Investigator, who is authorised by the Information Commissioner to conduct this review

Background

On 9 December 2016, the applicant submitted a multi-part request to the Council for information relating to a specific section of the Sarsfield Road Fly-over, including details of any reports into excess surface water, details of certificates of compliance with Design Manual for Roads and Bridges Standards, details of any works carried out regading ponding of surface water, all policy documents regarding the maintenance of drains/sewers, and all notes, log entries and reports regarding the maintenance of drains/sewers at the specified location.

On 22 December 2016, the Council informed the applicant that it had estimated the cost of searching and retrieving the relevant records to be €450, on the basis that processing the request would take one member of staff 22.5 hours, and that the estimated cost of copying the records would be €50. It sought a deposit of €250 before proceeding with the processing of the request.

On 11 January 2017, the applicant paid the €250 deposit but also sought an internal review of the decision to impose the charge of €500. On 1 February 2017, the Council affirmed its decision in relation to the charge.

The Council subsequently decided to part-grant the request. As it had identified only 27 pages for release, it decided to waive the photocopying fee of €50 and sought a balance of €200 for the records in question. On 13 February 2017, the applicant paid the remaining €200 due and sought a review by this Office of the Council's decision to impose the search and retrieval charge of €450.

In conducting this review, I have had regard to the correspondence between the Council and the applicant as outlined above and to communications between this Office and both the applicant and the Council on the matter.

Scope of Review

This review is concerned solely with the question of whether the Council was justified in its decision to charge a fee of €450 for the search and retrieval of certain records relating to a specific section of the Sarsfield Road Fly-over.

Analysis and Findings

Section 27(1) of the FOI Act provides for the mandatory charging of fees by FOI bodies for the estimated cost of the search for, and retrieval and copying of, records (SRC charge). Under section 27(2), the search for and retrieval of records includes time spent by the body in
(a) determining whether it holds the information requested,
(b) locating the information or documents containing the information,
(c) retrieving such information or documents,
(d) extracting the information from the files, documents, electronic or other information sources containing both it and other material not relevant to the request, and
(e) preparing a schedule specifying the records for consideration for release.

The SRC charge is calculated at a prescribed amount per hour in respect of time that was spent, or ought, in the opinion of the body, to have been spent in carrying out the search for and retrieval of the records efficiently. This amount is currently set at €20 per hour under the Freedom of Information Act 2014 (Fees) (No. 2) Regulations 2014 [S.I. No. 531 of 2014].

In its submissions to this Office, the Council stated that the request related to a large capital works project with a number of organisations and individuals involved and that a search coordination exercise was required consisting, but not limited to, the Council, Transport Infrastructure Ireland, and ARUP Consulting Engineers.

It stated that two members of staff from the Roads &Transportation Directorate spent a total of 8 hours locating and retrieving records that were potentially relevant to the applicant's request. It stated that it took 2 hours to locate the relevant records as some were retained in the Council's Site Pouladuff Offices, some by its engineering staff and some by its design team and other bodies. A second staff member spent a further six hours going through the various box files and separated out the files with potentially relevant information. A third member of staff examined the potentially relevant records and extracted the relevant records. The staff member estimated that he spent approximately 16 hours on this task. A schedule was then prepared, taking approximately 20 minutes.

The Council commented that the Senior Engineers who had been involved with the construction of the Sarsfield Road Fly-over have retired and without out the familiarity and first hand knowledge of these engineers, the staff members processing the request had to read through a lot a superfluous material in order to extract the 27 pages relevant to the applicant's request. The Council also commented that an electronic search would not have been suitable in this case as the applicant had sought access to notes, log entries, which may not have been held electronically. In summary, the Council stated that it spent a total of 24 hours and 20 minutes processing the applicant's request, but only charged for the 22.5 hours that it had estimated the search and retrieval process would take.

The applicant expressed alarm at the fact that it took 22.5 hours to gather just 27 pages as she considered her request to be sufficiently precise to allow for a ready identification of the records in question. I have no reason to question the Council's assertion that it spent 24 hours processing the request. The question I must consider, however, is whether the search and retrieval exercise undertaken was conducted efficiently.

While the applicant may consider that the records she sought should be readily available, the fact that they all relate to the same stretch of road does not necessarily mean that all records relating to that stretch of road should be held together. The fact remains that the Council holds the records in a number of different locations and that many of the records sought are not held electronically. Having regard to the Council's description of the actual search and retrieval exercise carried out, I am satisfied that it provided a reasonable basis for its decision to charge a SRC fee of €450.

Decision

Having carried out a review under section 22(2) of the FOI Act, I hereby affirm the decision of the Council to charge a fee of €450 under section 27 of the FOI Act.

Right of Appeal

Section 24 of the FOI Act sets out detailed provisions for an appeal to the High Court by a party to a review, or any other person affected by the decision. In summary, such an appeal, normally on a point of law, must be initiated not later than four weeks after notice of the decision was given to the person bringing the appeal.

 

 


Stephen Rafferty,
Senior Investigator