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Fee-for-all: There’s no limit to what public bodies can charge to access information

Canadian $100 bills are counted in Toronto, Feb. 2, 2016. Graeme Roy/The Canadian Press
Graeme Roy/The Canadian Press

If you’ve ever filed a freedom of information request to a provincial or municipal body, you’ve likely received an e-mail from a public servant that goes something like this:

Please be advised that the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act authorizes certain fees to be charged for processing a request. In this instance, this would include a charge for every hour of manual search required to locate a record and preparation for disclosure. The calculation of the fee is as follows…

Every FOI system in Canada has a process for assessing fees. Most jurisdictions charge an initial filing fee ranging between $5 and $25, and virtually all are able to ask for additional processing fees before releasing records. The sole outlier is the federal government, which abolished all fees beyond the initial $5 with Bill C-58 in 2019.

(Hot tip: It seems federal bodies can choose not to charge a fee. Last year, while I was filing an access request to the Canada School of Public Service for copies of FOI training materials, I was surprised to learn they didn’t charge any filing fees whatsoever. In an e-mail, Julie Bureau, an access to information and privacy manager, told me the body began waiving fees in April, 2022 “to better facilitate access and transparency to the information held by our organization.”)

During The Globe and Mail’s Secret Canada investigation, my colleague Robyn Doolittle and I filed more than 430 requests to public bodies across Canada asking for data from their FOI request tracking systems. Most didn’t charge us, but some did. In all, we were asked to pay $2,066.09 by a total of 31 entities, according to the mildly messy spreadsheet Robyn and I used to track our many, many requests. In reality, we ended up paying far less, mostly because: 1) some public bodies realized they could provide the information we’d requested much more easily than they first assumed, or 2) we negotiated them down.

Most processing fees were on the order of $10 to $30. We paid those out immediately. But some organizations asked for more. In those cases, before paying, we tried to understand how they’d arrived at the fee, then attempted to negotiate down. For instance, Robyn managed to get one public body down from $180 to $45 after some back and forth.

(An aside on payment methods: Most jurisdictions will ask for payment in cheque form. If you don’t have a chequebook, be prepared to fork over $50 to your bank for one; very few public bodies accept credit cards for anything beyond the filing fee. This can lead to some silly situations: A few years ago, I needed to file a federal access request to an institution that didn’t take payment online, but was fresh out of cheques, and a new chequebook would’ve taken weeks to arrive. So I went to a brick-and-mortar bank and got the teller to cut me a money order. They were very confused when I told them it was payable to the “Receiver General of Canada” (the standard payee for federal requests), and even more confused when I told them the money order was for $5 (the actual fee to draft a money order was $7.50). These kinds of fee hijinks come up every now and then if you’re a regular requester. When Robyn FOI’d the Sarnia Police Service for Secret Canada, they insisted on the $5 being paid in person and in cash; her mom, who lives near the Southwestern Ontario city, drove over to make the payment.)

There is no limit to how high fees can go. During get-togethers, journalists often share horror stories of fees in the tens of thousands of dollars. The highest I’ve ever seen was for $26,460, from the Greater Sudbury Police Service, when my colleague Patrick White and I spent months trying – and mostly failing – to figure out where Canada’s crime guns were coming from.

When you’re facing massive fee estimates, negotiation works. During our investigation, one of the largest FOI estimates we received came from the City of Vancouver, which asked me for $900 for data most other jurisdictions had provided without any processing fees whatsoever. (Only one public body, the Halifax Regional Police, sent us a higher fee estimate, demanding $2,800.) After months of on-again, off-again negotiation and discussion, the city said it would bring the price down if we agreed to a new request that was nearly identical to what we’d originally made. The only difference, as far as I can tell, was that it would provide us with a PDF instead of an Excel file. The new fee? $0.

Sometimes, negotiation isn’t enough. In 2021, I filed an FOI request to an Ontario institution for data I knew they tracked in a structured database. (I’m not naming the public body because I hope to use this data in a future story, and I don’t want to scoop myself!)

That public body hit back with a $12,000 fee. (“In the interest of good customer service,” indeed.)

I’m familiar enough with how databases work to know that a 400-hour estimate is absurd. I pushed back – first by asking for information on how they arrived at that estimate, and then by trying to find a configuration of database fields that wouldn’t be as much work – but the public body wouldn’t budge. 

I eventually filed an appeal with Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner. During mediation, I agreed to change the scope of my request ever-so-slightly. The new fee came out to $600 – a 95-per-cent reduction. (I’ve since filed a meta-request trying to understand how the public institution arrived at that $12,000 estimate, but the files I got back were all entirely redacted. Those redactions are now under appeal.)

If you’re faced with fees you’re not sure you’re willing to pay, be sure to ask questions and negotiate. Barring that, appeal. There’s one more thing you can try: a fee waiver request. While I’ve never personally tried this – fee waiver applications further slow down the FOI process, and I’ve heard journalists, especially ones at major news outlets, are rarely successful in getting their fees reduced – they can work if you can demonstrate some form of financial hardship or overriding public interest in the information. (For more information on fee waivers, see our guide on navigating the FOI process.)

Last year, my colleague, Colin Freeze, won a lengthy fight at Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner on fee waivers for public-interest requests. I asked him to share a bit about his fight and what he learned about waivers. Here’s Colin:

One year into the pandemic, Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government made headlines in 2021 for its announced plans to have police officers pull over members of the public at random so that authorities could inquire why they were not sheltering at home as directed to by the province. The measure was soon abandoned after steep criticism from the public and police.

The Globe sought records held by the province that could outline its rationale. Yet hefty fees were applied by the province to any prospective release package. In response, The Globe sought a fee waiver exemption on the grounds that the disclosure of these records would benefit the public. While such fee-reduction clauses are often in freedom of information laws, they are underutilized by requesters who routinely encounter onerous financial demands from government officials. 

When the government denied the fee-waiver request, The Globe appealed matters to the province’s Information and Privacy Commissioner. Months later, the tribunal released a decision reducing the imposed fees by 50 per cent, and set a valuable precedent for future requests about pandemic-related records held by the government:

"I find that distribution of the records, if disclosed, would yield a public benefit by contributing meaningfully to the development of understanding of an important public health issue, namely the Ontario government’s cost-benefit analyses of the potential use of emergency police powers to curtail individual rights during a public health or other crisis events."

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