The ability to impose charges for the provision of property search information is an important financial issue for many local authorities. Historically it had been thought by many that the imposition of such charges was governed by the Local Authorities (England) (Charges for Property Searches) Regulations 2008 (“CPSR”), which allow local authorities to recover all the costs of making such information available (including staff costs, overhead costs and the costs of maintaining relevant information systems). However, in recent years there has been an increasing awareness of the fact that requests for property search information to a large extent amount to requests for access to environmental information, such that they call for an application of the charging regime provided for in r. 8 of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004. The CPSR itself specifically provides that it does not apply to the provision of any information which is governed by other statutory charging regimes. Accordingly, it would seem that the CPSR is inapplicable in respect of requests for property search information insofar as those requests are made under the EIR.
Regulation 8 EIR allow reasonable charges to be imposed for making environmental information available, save that no charge may be imposed for permitting access to public registers or examining the requested information in situ. The question of when a public authority can impose charges and also what will constitute a reasonable charge has now been considered by the tribunal in a number of different cases, all of which concerned requests for property search information (see e.g. Kirklees Council v IC & Pali Ltd  UKUT 104 (AAC) and also East Riding of Yorkshire v IC).
Earlier this year, in Leeds City Council v IC & APPS Claimants (EA/2012/0020-21);  1 Info LR 406, the First-Tier Tribunal was asked to decide whether, when making environmental information available other than by means of inspection or through public registers, the local authority was entitled under r. 8 to charge only for disbursements (the Commissioner’s case) or whether other costs, such as the cost of staff time spent searching for the requested information and overhead costs, could be factored into the charge (the Council’s case). Having carefully considered not only r. 8 but the provisions on charging in the Directive on Public Access to Environmental Information (“the Directive”), the FTT concluded that public authorities could only charge in respect of disbursement costs. It also held that Leeds had erred in determining the charge by reference to the CPSR. Leeds initially sought and was granted permission to appeal against the decision. However, the appeal was not pursued. Notably, the Commissioner argued before the FTT in the Leeds case that the question of what would constitute a lawful charge could not satisfactorily be resolved without a reference to the Court of Justice of the European Union. That argument was not supported by Leeds or the APPS claimants. The FTT decided that it could resolve the appeal without a reference and so none was made.
These issues have now resurfaced before the First-Tier Tribunal in East Sussex County Council v IC & Property Search Company & the Local Government Association (EA/2013/0037), another property search case. In this case, the applicant requested answers to questions in the standard property search form issued by the Law Society, the CON29R form. The Council imposed a fixed charge for providing this information, the fixed charge having been calculated on the basis of the approach provided for in the CPSR (i.e. was a charge which was intended to produce a cost neutral result for the Council). The charge itself factored in not only disbursement costs, but also staff time, a portion of the Council’s overhead costs, office costs and a portion of the costs of maintaining the information systems from which the relevant information is derived.
In light of an analysis of preparatory legislative materials for the Directive, the Commissioner conceded that costs beyond mere disbursement costs could in principle be factored into the charge. In particular, he argued that staff time spent searching for the information could be included. However, he disputed that other costs (e.g. overheads, office costs and the costs of maintaining the relevant information systems) could lawfully be included. However, the Commissioner’s position before the FTT was that, notwithstanding his concession, there remained substantial uncertainty as to what constituted a permissible charge under the Directive and a reference to the CJEU was still warranted. The other parties to the appeal ultimately agreed that this was an appropriate course.
The FTT has now decided that there should be a reference for a preliminary ruling. The questions being referred are:
(1) What is the meaning to be attributed to Art 5(2) of Directive 2003/4/EC and in particular can a charge of a reasonable amount for supplying a particular type of environmental information include:
(a) part of the cost of maintaining a database used by the public authority to answer requests for information of that type;
(b) overhead costs attributable to staff time properly taken into account in fixing the charge?
(2) Is it consistent with Arts 5(2) and 6 of the Directive for a Member State to provide in its regulations that a public authority may charge an amount for supplying environmental information which does “… not exceed an amount which the public authority is satisfied is a reasonable amount” if the decision of the public authority as to what is a “reasonable amount” is subject to administrative and judicial review as provided under English law?”
Hopefully the CJEU will in due course agree to give a preliminary ruling. In the meantime, local authorities and those engaged in the property search industry will have to wait with baited breath.
Anya Proops acts for the Information Commissioner.
Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin