How much can a local authority charge for providing property searches?

29 January 2016

In the case of East Sussex County Council v Information Commissioner (Case C‑71/14), the European Union Court of Justice gave its decision on what a local authority can charge for providing property search information. This decision is in light of Directive 2003/4/EC which was transposed into UK law in the Environmental Information Regulations 2004. 

A property search company brought a complaint against East Sussex County Council for the costs it had been charged for the supply of environmental information relevant to a commercial property transaction (commonly described as ‘property searches’).

In this case the council charged £17 for a set of searches, in accordance with its standard scale of charges which was set based on an hourly rate. The hourly rate took into account the time spent by the whole of the council’s information team both on maintaining the relevant database and replying to individual requests for information.

The court decided that Article 5(2) of Directive 2003/4 must be interpreted as meaning that the charge for supplying such information may not include any part of the cost of maintaining a database used for that purpose by the public authority (noting that the authority is obliged to maintain such a database/register in order to comply with Directive 2003/4). The cost may include the overheads attributable to the time spent by the staff of the authority on answering individual requests for information, provided that the total charge does not exceed a reasonable amount.

The court pointed out that a “reasonable amount” is one that does not deter someone from requesting the information, and that “In order to assess whether a charge […] has a deterrent effect, account must be taken both of the economic situation of the person requesting the information and of the public interest in protection of the environment. […] the charge must not exceed the financial capacity of the person concerned, nor in any event appear objectively unreasonable.”

Local authorities may wish to review their charging policies for property searches, in light of the court’s interpretation in this case, to ensure that they comply with Directive 2003/4.

This article is for general awareness only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. The law may have changed since this page was first published.

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