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Freedom of access to information

The European Commission sets rules which ensure freedom of access to, and dissemination of, information on the environment held by public authorities and to set out the basic terms and conditions under which such information should be made available.

ACT

Directive 2003/4/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 28 January 2003 on public access to environmental information and repealing Council Directive 90/313/EEC.

SUMMARY

Access to environmental information held by the public authorities is a prerequisite for stepping up the application and monitoring of Community environment law.

Disparities between the laws in force in the Member States concerning access to environmental information held by public authorities can create inequality within the Community as regards access to information and/or as regards conditions of competition.

'Information relating to the environment' means any available information in written, visual, aural or data-base form on the state of water, air, soil, fauna, flora, land and natural sites, and on activities or measures adversely affecting or likely so to affect these, and on activities or measures designed to protect these (including administrative measures and environmental management programmes).

The purpose of this Directive aims is to ensure that environmental information is systematically available and distributed to the public. That information includes at least:

  • international treaties, conventions and agreements and Community, national, regional and local legislation concerning the environment;
  • environment policies, programmes and plans;
  • reports on the state of the environment (to be published at least every four years);
  • data on activities affecting the environment;
  • environmental authorisations and agreements;
  • environmental impact studies and risk assessments.

Member States must ensure that public authorities make environmental information held by or for them available to any applicant, whether a natural or a legal person, on request and without the applicant having to state an interest. They must also ensure that:

  • officials assist the public in seeking access to information;
  • lists of public authorities are publicly accessible;
  • the right of access to environmental information can be effectively exercised.

Member States must ensure that all information held by the public authorities relating to imminent threats to human health or the environment is immediately distributed to the public likely to be affected.

Information must be made available to the applicant not later than one month after receipt of the request. If the volume and complexity of the information is such that this period cannot be complied with, a period of two months from the date of receipt of the request is to be allowed.

Access to public registers and lists and examination in situ of the information requested are free of charge. However, authorities may make a reasonable charge for supplying any environmental information.

Should information be requested in a specific format, the public authority must supply it in that format, unless it is already publicly available in another format or unless it is reasonable for the public authority to make it available in another format. In this case, the reasons for refusal to make it available in the requested format must be provided to the applicant within one month. Public authorities must endeavour to keep information in formats which are readily reproducible and accessible by electronic means, and ensure it is up-to-date, accurate and comparable.

Requests for information may be refused (a notification stating the reasons for the refusal being sent to the applicant within one month, in writing or electronically) where:

  • the public authority does not hold the requested information. Nonetheless, where it is aware that the information is held by another authority, it must inform the applicant accordingly;
  • the request is unreasonable;
  • the request is too general. However, the authority must ask the applicant to specify the request and help him to do so;
  • the requested information is in the course of completion;
  • the request concerns internal communications;
  • disclosure of the information would adversely affect the confidentiality of the proceedings of public authorities or of commercial or industrial information, public security or national defence, the course of justice, intellectual property rights, the confidentiality of personal data, the interests of the person who supplied the information on a voluntary basis, or the protection of the environment.

Where the information relates to emissions into the environment, Member States may not provide for a request to be refused by virtue of the exceptions relating to the confidentiality of the proceedings of public authorities, the confidentiality of commercial or industrial information, the confidentiality of personal data, the interests or the protection of any person who has supplied the requested information on a voluntary basis or the protection of the environment to which such information relates.

Member States must ensure that any applicant who considers that his request for information has not been handled in accordance with the provisions of the Directive has access to a procedure of administrative reconsideration or review. Any such procedure must be expeditious and inexpensive, and must be carried out by an independent body.

Not later than 14 August 2009, Member States must send the Commission a report on the application of the Directive. In turn, the Commission must report to the Council and the European Parliament and propose any appropriate revision of the Directive.

Background

On 25 June 1998 the Community signed a Convention on access to information, public participation in decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters (the Aarhus Convention). So that it can be ratified, Community legislation must be compatible with it. This Directive seeks this compatibility, extends the level of access to information set in Directive 90/313/EC and repeals this with effect from 14 February 2005.

REFERENCES

ActEntry into force - Date of expiryDeadline for transposition in the Member StatesOfficial Journal
Directive 2003/4/EC14.02.200314.02.2005OJ L 41 of 14.02.2003

RELATED ACTS

Report - COM(2000) 400 final

Article 8 of Directive 90/313/EC states that, four years after 31 December 1992, the Member States must report to the Commission on the experience they have gained. In the light of this report, the Commission must present a report to the European Parliament and the Council, together with any proposals for revision it considers appropriate. The report is based on the experience gained by the Member States in implementing the Directive. It takes into account the reports drawn up by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working in the environmental domain and developments in Community and international law. Complaints, petitions and parliamentary questions play a vital role in defining the main problems. These are the following:

  • definitions of information needing to be divulged and the public authorities and other bodies which are obliged to provide it;
  • the practical methods designed to guarantee effective access to the information;
  • exemptions to the obligations to provide access to information;
  • the requirement to reply;
  • deadlines applicable to obligations;
  • the requirement to justify any refusal;
  • the procedure for reviewing-examining decisions to reject requests for information;
  • charges;
  • the active provision of information.

The Commission has decided to present Directive 2003/4/EC in order to correct these errors and observe its obligations under the Aarhus Convention.

Last updated: 12.06.2006
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