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Practical guide to filing information requests

Here are some practical tips on how to plan and submit an access to information request and how to deal with official refusals. Check first if the information you require is covered by your legal right to access that information.

1

Are there any risks in making the information request?

Before you make a request for information, consider whether there may be any risks in doing so and if there are, think about how you can manage those risks. Ask yourself:

(a) Is there a risk to your security?

Could any action be taken against you in response to your making an official request? Consider in advance how to protect yourself and whether there is a better way of getting the information. For example, could another group ask for it, such as a coalition, a national civil society group, a lawyer or journalist?

(b) Is there a risk to the information that you are requesting?

Could a person or office who holds the information destroy it before you can access it? If so, are there any preliminary steps you should take? For example, could a court grant an order requiring named officials to produce the information? If the information is available in several places, should you make several requests at the same time to the different Government offices where it is held? Is there any (publicly available) official register that can prove the existence of the document you need?

(c) Is there a risk in how you are planning to use the information?

Can you protect the security of the information once you have obtained it? For example, is there a trusted person to whom you can send it anonymously? Is there a software that you can use to safeguard the information? Martus is a good example of a free, open source and secure information collection and management tool that allows you to store your information under encryption.

Usually the law does not require that you mention the access to information law or freedom of information act, but this is recommended because it shows you know your legal rights and is likely to encourage correct processing of the requests according to the law.

For example, for requests to the EU it is important to mention that it is a request for access to documents and it is best to make a specific mention of Regulation 1049/2001. It is also recommended that you use language and etiquette appropriate to any other professional communication in your country.

Remember: There is also no need to say why you want the information, nor to answer questions about the reason for asking or what you will do with the information.

2

Practical tips to lessen risks in making information requests

(a) Be sure to document everything you do while requesting information.

  • If you talk to someone on the phone, be sure you record his or her name and the date and time of the call and take notes about the conversation. Follow up those conversations with a note (via email, for example) to the person you talked with summarizing the call
  • Keep a record of everything you do in case you later need to go to court

(b) Use mobile phones as securely as possible

  • Keep your phone with you at all times. Never leave it unattended
  • Protect your SIM card and additional memory car (if your phone has one)
  • Back up your phone information regularly to a computer
  • If you are conducting private and important meetings, switch your phone off

(c) Keep your online communications private

  • Make sure your email is secure. Avoid using Hotmail, Yahoo, or any other webmail provider that includes your IP address in the messages you send
  • Use anonymity software like Tor

(d) Protect your device from malware (viruses and spywares) and hackers

  • Use tools such as Avast, Spybot and Comodo Firewall.
  • Do not run two anti-virus programs at the same time
  • Make sure your program is always up to date
  • Enable your anti-virus software’s ‘always on’ virus-detection feature (if applicable)
  • Scan all of the files on your computer regularly
  • Be cautious when opening email attachments, any files received (e.g. over Instant Messaging) or downloaded from the Internet

Note: having an anti-virus software isn’t enough. You also need protection from spyware and hackers by:

  • Installing anti-spyware software such as Spybot
  • Staying alert when browsing websites. When in doubt, close ‘pop up windows’, don’t click anything on the actual page
  • Preventing your web browser from automatically running programs
  • Never running content which comes from websites that you don’t know or trust

(e) Protect your information from physical intruders

  • Get to know your neighbours. You can either turn them into allies or you can add them to the list of potential threats that your security plan must address
  • Ensure that all your doors, windows and other points of entry are protected

(f) Destroy sensitive information

  • Simply dragging and dropping your files into the Recycle Bin and emptying the bin only clears the icon, removes the file’s name from a hidden index of everything on your computer and tell it that it can use the space for something else
  • If you have the right software, such as Recuva, and act quickly enough, it can be recovered
  • Wipe temporary files using a program like CCleaner
  • Wipe all the free space on your device using a program like Eraser
3

How to file a request

You will need to obtain a copy of the procedural requirements applied by the body from which the information is being sought. Compare these to your country’s FoI laws, to check that the procedural requirements of the public authority from which you are seeking information are legitimate and not excessive.

You should pay attention to the correct name of the entity, the necessary information that you are asked to supply (e.g. identifying yourself or the information being sought), the form in which you want to receive the information and any fee that you need to pay.

In some countries and situations, the person filing the request has to show that s/he has a legal interest in obtaining the information. In such cases it would be necessary, when filing the request, to argue why the information is needed.

TIP: some do’s and don’ts in filing a request

DO: Formulate your request precisely. If your request is difficult to understand, the body holding the information may reject it or interpret it in the way it considers most convenient to itself.

DO: send several rounds of requests, and specify step-by-step the information you want if you are unsure what information the requested body may hold.

DO ask for specific documents, or for documents that fall into a specific category so that these can be readily identified without ambiguity.

DON’T ask for an unreasonable amount of documents or your request may be rejected as unreasonable.

DO: Add a line to your letter stating your willingness to answer any questions in order to help identify the exact documents/information you are looking for.

DO: Keep proof of having filed the request, e.g., by saving a copy of the email if filing the request electronically, or by sending the request by registered mail with return receipt.

4

What if the information is not held by the body concerned?

If the information is not held by the body from which you requested it, the law of most countries says that the body must either transmit your request to the body that does hold the information, or inform you where you can send your request. If the body transfers your request, in most countries it is under a duty to inform you about such transfer.

It is possible for you to informally or formally appeal a body’s response. Pursuing an informal appeal is recommended as it may save time. You can first complain to the authority in question and ask it to conduct an internal review. If, on the other hand, you believe there has been an intentional obstruction, a formal appeal may be recommended. In many countries, compliance with such obligations are monitored by separate and independent agencies (such as the Information Commission in the United Kingdom).

TIP: When you file your request, add a line saying that in the event the information is held elsewhere, your request should be transferred, and that you should be notified of this step.

5

What are the deadlines for a response?

The deadline for responding to a request for information will differ from country to country and will also depend on the kind of information requested. Typically, the term is between 15 and 30 days counting from when the entity receives your request. The deadline for responding to a request is generally stipulated in the law dealing with the right to access to information.

In many countries, the body which receives the request may take more time to answer a request that it considers to be unusually complex. In such a case, you should be notified that more time is needed due to the complexity of the request. Be prepared to raise an objection if the request is not, in fact, complex; in some countries, this response is habitually applied in order to deter or frustrate requests.

6

In what format must the information be provided?

The law in many countries allows the person requesting information to express a preference for the form in which the information is provided. This preference should be respected, unless this causes unreasonable practical difficulties. In other countries, the law simply states that a copy of the information must be supplied.

Whatever the law states, express a preference in your request for how you would like to receive the information. For example, if you are requesting a spreadsheet or database, you may wish to ask for a file to be sent to you by email rather than receiving a paper printout in the mail. However, make it clear that you are just expressing a preference, so that you do not give the body a reason to refuse your request entirely if the information can only be provided in a different form.

7

Will filing a request for information cost money?

In most, but not all, countries, there is no charge for filing a request for access to information. However, if the information is disclosed, you may often be charged the cost of making photocopies and sending the information to you. Normally the law either sets out the price that can be charged per page copied and letter sent, or requires this cost to be realistic and to correspond to the actual price of copying and delivery.

If you are concerned about the cost you may face, you could ask for the information to be sent to you electronically (see also: «In which form must the information be provided?” above).

In a small number of countries, the public body may charge you for the cost of searching for the information and deciding whether to disclose it, in addition to the cost of copying and sending. If this is the case in your country, ask the public body to consult you beforehand if the cost of providing the information is expected to exceed a certain level. In Germany, for example, a fee of between €30 and €250 may be charged. By contrast, in Canada a fee of $CA 5 must be sent with each request, by cheque or postal order.

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