On ‘reasonable amounts’, Aarhus, and the price of environmental information. Sharpston AG in East Sussex County Council.

In East Sussex County Council Case C-71/14, the question under consideration is the application of Directive 2003/4 ‘s reasonableness test. Article 5 of the Directive provides that in situ access to information to for example public registers has to be free of charge. Further, that charges for supplying any environmental information must be ‘reasonable’.

In particular, how ‘objective’ must a reasonable cost be, seen against the light of English statutory law which allows local authorities to specify access (and other) fees providing that the amount ‘shall not exceed an amount which the public authority is satisfied is a reasonable amount’. Application in that case is made by a property search group with a view to commercial conveyancing. Sharpston AG on 16 April 2015 opined that even for commercial applicants, authorities’ hands are quite tied. In particular,

  • that Article 5(2) of Directive 2003/4 does not authorise a public authority to recover, through a charge for supplying information, all or part of the costs of establishing and maintaining a database in which it has organised the environmental information it holds and which it uses to answer requests for information of the type listed in a questionnaire such as that at issue in the main proceedings.
  • that a charge which does not exceed a reasonable amount within the meaning of Article 5(2) of Directive 2003/4 is a charge which: (i) is set on the basis of objective factors that are known and capable of review by a third party; (ii) is calculated regardless of who is asking for the information and for what purpose; (iii) is set at a level that guarantees the objectives of the right of access to environmental information upon request and thus does not dissuade people from seeking access or restrict their right of access; and (iv) is no greater than an amount that is appropriate to the reason why Member States are allowed to make this charge (that is, that a member of the public has made a request for the supply of environmental information) and directly correlated to the act of supplying that information; that
  • In particular, a charge of a ‘reasonable amount’ under Article 5(2) of Directive 2003/4 is to be based on the costs actually incurred in connection with the act of supplying environmental information in response to a specific request. That will include the costs of staff time spent on searching for and producing the information requested and the cost of producing it in the form requested (which may vary). However, it is not permissible for such a charge also to seek to recover overheads such as heating, lighting or internal services. And that
  • Article 5(2) of Directive 2003/4 requires public authorities to ensure that their charges do not exceed a reasonable amount, judged by the yardstick of what a ‘reasonable amount’ means objectively under EU law. That does not, as such, preclude a rule of national law according to which a public authority must satisfy itself that a charge levied meets that standard, however, Member State to ensure that there is (first) administrative and (then) judicial review of whether a public authority’s decision on what constitutes a reasonable charge is in conformity with the autonomous EU law meaning of what is ‘reasonable’ under Article 5(2) of Directive 2003/4.

In other words: the current wording in the relevant English statute, in the view of the AG, does not infringe the Directive. (It does in my view at least however add a layer of complication: for the authority’s subjective finding of reasonableness subsequently has to be checked, in two tiers of appeal (administrative cq judicial), against the Directive’s objective standard).

Aarhus is considered throughout the appeal and hence Charles Banner’s book on the Aarhus Convention, just out with Hart, a timely publication I would think.

Geert.

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