The ICO exists to empower you through information.

At a glance              

The Act does not allow you to charge a flat fee but you can recover your communication costs, such as for photocopying, printing and postage. You cannot normally charge for any other costs, such as for staff time spent searching for information, unless other relevant legislation authorises this.

However, if the cost of complying with the request would exceed the cost limit referred to in the legislation, you can offer to supply the information and recover your full costs (including staff time), rather than refusing the request. You can find more detail about the cost limit in When can we refuse a request?.

If you wish to charge a fee, you should send the requester a fees notice. You do not have to send the information until you have received the fee. The time limit for complying with the request excludes the time spent waiting for the fee to be paid. In other words, you should issue the fees notice within the standard time for compliance. Once you have received the fee, you should send out the information within the time remaining.

If the information that you are providing is a dataset, and it is covered by the RPSI, then you may charge for permitting re-use according to RPSI. If it is not covered, for example because you are not a public sector body under RPSI, then you should deal with charging for re-use according to the dataset provisions in the Act. There is no re-use fee if you are making the datasets available for re-use under the Open Government Licence.

For further information, read our more detailed guidance:

In brief

When can we refuse a request on the grounds of cost?

The Act recognises that freedom of information requests are not the only demand on the resources of a public authority. They should not be allowed to cause a drain on your time, energy and finances to the extent that they negatively affect your normal public functions.

Currently, the cost limit for complying with a request or a linked series of requests from the same person or group is set at £600 for central government, Parliament and the armed forces and £450 for all other public authorities. You can refuse a request if you estimate that the cost of compliance would exceed this limit. This provision is found at section 12 of the Act.

You can refuse a request if deciding whether you hold the information would mean you exceed the cost limit, for example, because it would require an extensive search in a number of locations. Otherwise, you should say whether you hold the information, even if you cannot provide the information itself under the cost ceiling.

When calculating the costs of complying, you can aggregate (total) the costs of all related requests you receive within 60 working days from the same person or from people who seem to be working together.

How do we work out whether the cost limit would be exceeded?

You are only required to estimate whether the limit would be exceeded. You do not have to do the work covered by the estimate before deciding to refuse the request. However, the estimate must be reasonable and must follow the rules in the Freedom of Information (Appropriate Limit and Fees) Regulations 2004.

When estimating the cost of compliance, you can only take into account the cost of the following activities:

  • determining whether you hold the information;
  • finding the requested information, or records containing the information;
  • retrieving the information or records; and
  • extracting the requested information from records.

The biggest cost is likely to be staff time. You should rate staff time at £25 per person per hour, regardless of who does the work, including external contractors. This means a limit of 18 or 24 staff hours, depending on whether the £450 or £600 limit applies to your public authority.

You cannot take into account the time you are likely to need to decide whether exemptions apply, to redact (edit out) exempt information, or to carry out the public interest test.

However, if the cost and resources required to review and remove any exempt information are likely to be so great as to place the organisation under a grossly oppressive burden then you may be able to consider the request under Section 14 instead. (vexatious requests).

Please see 'Dealing with vexatious requests' for further details about refusing requests which impose a grossly oppressive burden.

Note that although fees and the appropriate limit are both laid down in the same Regulations, the two things must not be confused:

  • The cost of compliance and the appropriate limit relate to when a request can be refused.
  • The fees are what you can charge when information is disclosed.

See What should we do when we receive a request? for the rules on charging a fee.

For further information, read our more detailed guidance:

What if we think complying with the request would exceed the cost limit?

If you wish to use section 12 (cost limit) of the Act as grounds for refusing the request, you should send the requester a written refusal notice. This should state that complying with their request would exceed the appropriate cost limit. However, you should still say whether you hold the information, unless finding this out would in itself incur costs over the limit.

There is no official requirement for you to include an estimate of the costs in the refusal notice. However, you must give the requester reasonable advice and assistance to refine (change or narrow) their request. This will generally involve explaining why the limit would be exceeded and what information, if any, may be available within the limits.

“You have asked for all the details of expenses claims made for food or drink between 1995 and 2010.

No forms have been kept for the period before 1999. Between 1999 and 2006, these forms were submitted manually and are not stored separately or sorted by type of expenditure but are filed in date order along with other invoices and bills. We estimate that we have at least 10,000 items in these boxes, and we would have to look at every page to identify the relevant information. Even at 10 seconds an item, this would amount to more than 27 hours of work.

However, records since 2007 are kept electronically and we could provide these to you.”

You should not:

  • give the requester part of the information requested, without giving them the chance to say which part they would prefer to receive;
  • fail to let the requester know why you think you cannot provide the information within the cost limit;
  • advise the requester on the wording of a narrower request but then refuse that request on the same basis; or
  • tell the requester to narrow down their request without explaining what parts of their request take your costs over the limit. A more specific request may sometimes take just as long to answer. For instance, in the example above, if the requester had later asked only for expenses claims relating to hotel room service, this would also have meant searching all the records.

If the requester refines their request appropriately, you should then deal with this as a new request. The time for you to comply with the new request should start on the working day after the date you receive it.

If the requester does not want to refine their request, but instead asks you to search for information up to the costs limit, you can do this if you wish, but the Act does not require you to do so.

Can we charge extra if complying with a request exceeds the cost limit

Yes, if complying with a request would cost you more than the £450 or £600 limit, you can refuse it outright or do the work for an extra charge.

If you choose to comply with a request costing over £450 or £600, you can charge:

  • the cost of compliance (the costs allowed in calculating whether the appropriate limit is exceeded); plus
  • the communication costs (see What should we do when we receive a request?); plus
  • £25 an hour for staff time taken for printing, copying or sending the information.

You should not do this work without getting written agreement from the requester that they will pay the extra costs. You should also give the requester the option of refining their request rather than paying extra. The ‘time for compliance’ clock is paused in these circumstances, until you receive payment.

For further information, read our more detailed guidance: