A €170 fee charged by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) to process a request for information in relation to a forestry licence was “not reasonable”, the Commissioner for Environmental Information has ruled.
The request for information by an individual identified only as “Ms. M” related to a forestry licence issued by the DAFM in 2019 for the “afforestation of 10.13ha at Drumgeaglom and Mackan, Leitrim Village, Carrickon-Shannon, Co. Leitrim”.
In April 2021, Ms. M had requested a copy of the full file for CN83466 Drumgeaglom and Mackan, including a copy of all three inspection certifications.
She had been advised in April 2021 by a staff member in the DAFM that the file relating to the forestry licence was “very large…due to the number of submissions and appeals made against it” and that “the larger the request, the more likelihood there is that we will have to charge fees”.
The DAFM member of staff then asked Ms. M if “in order to avoid this”, she would be “agreeable to refining the request to leave out the correspondence between the submitters and the appellants”.
Ms. M told the DAFM that she wanted a copy of the full file in case she missed some information, and said that she would be happy to receive all of the information in “electronic format”.
The department “part-granted” Ms. M’s request in May 2021 on the basis that some of the information in the file contained “personal information”.
It also informed her that regulations allowed a public authority to charge a reasonable fee for supplying environmental information.
Fee of €170
It told Ms. M that “the services of one staff member for 8.5 hours was required to efficiently complete the ‘search, retrieval and copying’ work on [her] request” and that “the prescribed amount chargeable for each such hour is €20.00, resulting in an overall fee of €170”.
Ms. M paid the total fee but requested that the DAFM conduct an internal review of the decision to charge the fee on the basis that it was “unreasonable” – the internal review upheld the fee charge.
She then appealed to the office of the Commissioner for Environmental Information to review the fee charged by the DAFM for information on the forestry licence.
The decision of the commissioner was “that the fee charged by the department was not reasonable” and instructed a “refund of the fee” Ms. M had paid to the DAFM for information on the file for CN83466 Drumgeaglom and Mackan.
However, the commissioner has also stated that “any party or person” affected by this decision may “appeal to the High Court”.