Court finds Germany guilty on information law

Commission action succeeds on most fronts, but Germany vindicated on charging levels

The European Court of Justice today condemned Germany for failure to comply with the EU's directive on freedom of access to information on the environment. A source in the European Commission, which brought the case, welcomed the outcome as an significant boost for this "important horizontal" piece of EU law.

According to the official, the judgement will help people who have been frustrated in their attempts to obtain information. However, the judges disagreed with the advice given by an advocate general (court advisor) earlier this year that Germany was failing to ensure to restrict charges for supplying information to a "reasonable amount," (ENDS Daily 29 January) despite the fact that the maximum charge allowed for under German law is euros 5,112 (DM10,000).

Passed in 1990, the directive (90/313) aims to ensure that information on the environment held by public authorities in EU countries should be available to the general public within certain constraints. Under the law, central and local government organisations must in most cases make information available to any person requesting it and must not impose charges that "exceed a reasonable cost".

Germany transposed the directive into national legislation in the 1994 law on information relating to the environment. This has as its objective to ensure the freedom of access to information on the environment held by public bodies and sets out various rules governing this process.

According to the Commission, however, the German law is defective in several respects. First, it generally excludes courts, criminal prosecution authorities and disciplinary authorities from its requirements. On this aspect, as in the case of reasonable costs, the court found against the Commission.

On three other grounds, however, the Commission's action is found to be sound. First, the court has agreed that German law is defective in that it excludes the right to obtain information during "administrative proceedings". Second it does not clearly enough provide for information to be made available in part where there is a legitimate obstacle to providing full provision. And third, though charges for supplying information may be reasonable, it is not acceptable for public authorities to charge when requests are refused as German law provides.

Follow Up:
European Court of Justice, tel: +352 43031. References: Case C-217/97. Full text of the judgement available on the court's web site under "recent case law".

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