Request for information relating to levies charged for documents
Charge levied by Ministry of Fisheries—initial estimate of likely charges given—original request then ‘refined’—final charges justified—subsequent request for particular document not a new request—Ministry may require that whole or part of any charge be paid in advance
This investigation concerned charges made by the Ministry of Fisheries for copies of policy and delegation documents taken into account in reaching a decision not to issue a fishing permit. The information as originally requested, was not, in the Ministry’s view, specified with ‘due particularity’ as required by section 12(2) of the OIA. Nevertheless, the Ministry provided the requester with an estimated range of $500-1000 as the charge for providing the information requested. The requester then ‘refined’ the request to require ‘all policy documents referred to or that form the basis of the decision to decline our client’s applications’.
The Ministry actioned the ‘refined’ request and informed the requester that the charge for staff time and copying involved in meeting the request was $732.20.
The requester’s first complaint was that the Ministry had undertaken an extensive search for documents beyond those requested; that the documents being charged for included documents that were outside the scope of the request; and that the charge made was within the same range of charges as originally estimated before the subsequent ‘refinement’ of the request.
It is not an Ombudsman’s function under the OIA to determine what information held by a department is relevant to a request under the OIA. That is for the department itself to determine, after the requester has specified the information requested with ‘due particularity’. The Ombudsman’s function in this case was to investigate and review the reasonableness of the charge imposed by the Ministry for the information.
The investigation confirmed that the Ministry had calculated the charge in accordance with the Cabinet guidelines on charging and the charge was considered reasonable in the circumstances. The original estimate of likely charges given by the Ministry on receipt of the original request was nothing more than an estimate, as at that time the Ministry had not actioned the request and the charge could have been considerably higher, had the request been actioned in its original form.
The second complaint was that the Department had refused a subsequent request for a specific document relating to the delegated authority and guidelines used in making the decisions to decline the permits until the outstanding charge of $732.20 for the information requested earlier had been paid.
It was established that this particular document was covered by the terms of the earlier request and was included with the information to be released in response to this request. In terms of section 15(3) of the OIA, the Ministry was entitled to ‘require that the whole or part of any charge be paid in advance’.
The view was therefore formed that the Ministry was entitled to require advance payment of the full charge of $732.20 before releasing any of the information at issue, and was not required to release the single document separately.
This case note is published under the authority of the Ombudsmen Rules 1989. It sets out an Ombudsman’s view on the facts of a particular case. It should not be taken as establishing any legal precedent that would bind an Ombudsman in future.