Access to official documents
Any person – regardless of their nationality, place of residence or age – has the right apply for access to official documents and to obtain information about the content of such documents. The procedure is laid down in the Freedom of Information Act and in the Freedom of Information Ordinance.
Procedure for Access
In an initial step, the authority considers the application for access to the required document or documents and informs the applicant about its position.
All applications that relate to one or more documents as defined in the Freedom of Information Act, qualify as application for access. At this point, the applicants do not need to disclose their identity or state specific grounds for their interest in the documents in question.
The application can be submitted in any form, including verbally. However, it must provide sufficient details to allow the authority to identify the requested document(s). It may be helpful to include the date of issue, the title or the reference, the precise subject matter or the relevant time frame. In the case the application is too extensive or insufficiently detailed, the authority may ask the applicants to specify their application.
The following requests do not qualify as applications for access:
- general information (e.g. on the current status of a project, on the competence of an authority in a specific area);
- inspection in or publication of information in compliance with special legal provisions (e.g. register excerpts, requests from parties to inspect court files, applications to access official documents containing personal data about the applicant);
- legal advice.
The authorities shall assist the applicants with their request and to provide information about the official documents available. Most authorities provide contact forms and addresses on their websites for submitting applications for access.
In principle, documents containing personal data should be made anonymous. If the applicant is interested in this data, the authority consults the third party concerned to give them the opportunity to respond on the requested disclosure of their personal data. The authority weighs up the private interest of the third party concerned in protecting their own privacy on the one side and the public interest in disclose the information in question on the other side. It informs the consulted third party of the result of its weighing of interest.
If the authority defers access, it must notify the applicant of the duration of the deferral, unless the point in time cannot yet be determined.
If the right of access is restricted, deferred or refused in any way, the authority must comply with the principle of proportionality. With regard to the principle of freedom of information, this means that the authority should opt for the least rigour form of restriction that is the least detrimental to the principle of freedom of information if there is a justified reason to restrict access to a document. It should therefore weigh up the possibility of allowing access to the official document partially instead of completely refusing the right of access, it may also consider whether access may be deferred.
If the authority does not grant full access, it must inform the applicant in writing, even if access was requested verbally. The authority must provide a summary of the grounds why one of the exceptions set out in the Act applies.
The authority shall make a decision no later than 20 days after receipt of the application. This deadline may, under exceptional circumstances, be extended:
- by 20 days if the application concerns a large number of documents which are complex or difficult to obtain;
- for documents containing personal data, in which case the authority will consult the third parties concerned and defer access until the legal situation has been clarified.
The applicant must be notified of any extension of the deadline in advance.
If the applicant does not agree with the restriction of access (refusal, partial access or deferral), they may file a request for mediation with the Federal Data Protection and Information Commissioner within 20 days of receiving the answer. They can also file a request for mediation if the authority fails to respond within the stipulated time frame.
For the Administration, the principle of 'access to one, access to all' applies, whereby if access to a public document is granted to one person, each further applicant must be granted such access to at least the same degree.
In principle, access to official documents is subject to a payment of a fee. However, fees are only charged if they exceed CHF 100.
Fees for access applications in accordance with FoIA
Recommendation of the Conference of Secretaries General (in German)
Advance notice of fee and advance payment of costs
The authority shall notify the applicant in advance if the fee is likely to exceed CHF 100. If the applicant still wishes to pursue the application, they shall confirm his application to the authority accordingly within 10 days. Otherwise, the application is deemed to be withdrawn. If the applicant lives abroad or if they have not settled outstanding fees, an appropriate advance payment may be requested.
Reduction of fees
If the application is submitted by journalists, the authority shall reduce the fee at least by half. This does not apply if the application requires particularly extensive processing.
Fees should not be an obstacle to implementing the principle of freedom of information. The authorities have a certain margin of discretion as the Freedom of Information Act stipulates that fees are charged 'in principle'. Some authorities only charge fees for applications requiring extensive processing. However, there is no right of access free of charge.
If applicants do not agree with the fee, they can request a fee ruling, against which an appeal to the Federal Administrative Court is open.
The fee charged can thereafter only be appealed in mediation proceedings if at the same time the applicant contests a restriction of access (partial access, refusal or deferral).
Exceptionally, the amount of the anticipated fees may be objected in a request for mediation if they are so excessive that they equals a restriction of access.
Information disclosed free of charge
On 30 September 2022, the Federal Assembly adopted a partial revision of the Freedom of Information Act, according to which access to official documents shall generally be free of charge. The entry into force of this revision has not yet been determined.
Last modification 24.04.2023