The Federal Act of 17 December 2004 on Freedom of Information in the Administration (Freedom of Information Act, FoIA) creates greater transparency by allowing access to official documents within the federal administration. This information brochure gives an outline of the Act and its aims, and explains the rights of people who apply for access to documents.
When the Federal Act on Freedom of Information in the Administration came into force on 1 July 2006, the Federal Administration moved away from the non-disclosure principle to one of granting greater freedom of information. The Freedom of Information Act now makes it possible to access freely and easily official documents of the Federal Administration, Parliamentary Services and public or private organisations and persons that issue decrees or rulings.
In applying the principle of freedom of information, the federal administration aims to increase the transparency of its organisation and activities. It contributes to keeping the public informed by allowing all citizens access to official documents, thereby increasing confidence in the state and authorities. Greater transparency means that the public can more clearly understand the actions of the authorities.
The Freedom of Information Act only applies to official documents created after 1July 2006. Access is not granted to documents of the Swiss National Bank or the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority.
1. Documents to which the law applies
The law basically applies to all official documents of the Federal Administration, Parliamentary Services and public and private persons and organisations that issue decrees or rulings.
Official documents are all those containing information concerning public duties, and may be stored in any format, either written or digital. The information must also be in the possession of an authority subject to the Freedom of Information Act, either because the authority has issued it or received it from a third party.
An exception to this is information which is used commercially by an authority (e.g. maps from the Federal Office of Topography) and documents which have not yet been completed. In addition, no access is granted to documents intended for personal use (e.g. work aids such as handwritten notes, working copies of documents or personal memos).
2. Applying for access
Basically, anybody - including legal entities and associations - is entitled to apply to access documents, irrespective of where they live or of their nationality. Applications can be made orally (e.g. by phone or in person) or in written form, by letter, fax or e-mail. No reason must be given for applying and the applicant does not have to declare any particular interest or personal motive.
The application must be sufficiently precise, i.e. it must contain enough detail to allow identification of the required document or documents. It is helpful to the authority to have information about when the document was created or published, its title or reference, exact subject matter, the authority which may have published documents on the subject, and the period to which it may refer. Where required, the authority may ask the applicant to give more precise information. The authority must support the applicant as far as is possible.
The application for access should be submitted to the authority which issued the document or which received the document as primary addressee from a third party not subject to the Act. An authority is understood to be:
- an office of the federal administration,
- a private or public organisation or person and
- the Parliamentary Services.
Access to official documents is normally subject to a fee. However, a charge is only made when the fees amount to more than CHF 100. In this case the applicant is told how much it is likely to cost. If the applicant decides to continue with the application, he or she must inform the authority within ten days. Otherwise the application is automatically withdrawn. If an application for access is refused or access only partially granted, the authority may waive or reduce the fee.
3. How the application is processed
The authority concerned will normally respond to the application within 20 days. This deadline may be extended under the following circumstances:
- If an application is made to access documents which are too long, complex or difficult to obtain, a further 20 days is permitted to process the application
- If an application is made to access official documents which contain personal data, the authority will defer access until the legal situation has been established.
The authority must inform the applicant if the processing deadline is extended. If the authority does not respond to an application within the prescribed period, the applicant can make a written request for mediation to the Federal Data Protection and Information Commissioner FDPIC within 20 days.
4. Access may be restricted or refused
The Freedom of Information Act contains several exceptions relating to special cases in which access can be limited, deferred or refused. For example, this is possible if allowing access to official documents would mean that
- Switzerland's internal or external security could be jeopardised;
- Switzerland's foreign policy interests or international relations could be compromised;
- relations between the Confederation and cantons or between cantons could be compromised;
- Switzerland's economic, financial or monetary policy interests could be jeopardised.
Furthermore, it may be necessary to limit, defer or refuse access in order to protect
- personal data of third parties;
- information which the authority has been given freely by a third party and which the authority has promised to keep confidential;
- intellectual property or professional, business and industrial secrets.
In addition, access may only be given to official documents when the political or administrative decision for which they form a basis has been taken. In each individual case, the authority concerned must determine whether and why an exception as stated in the law should be made, and provide the reasons for this in writing.
If the authority decides to limit or refuse access to the documents requested, the applicant may submit a written application for mediation to the FDPIC within 20 days.
5. Accessing official documents from the cantonal authorities
A number of cantons also recognise the freedom of information principle in their administrations. Some cantons (Aargau, Bern, Solothurn, Vaud, Geneva and Jura) have laws on accessing official documents additional to those on federal level, or the principle of freedom of information is established in the cantonal constitution (e.g. Basel-Stadt, Schaffhausen, St. Gallen).
If you wish to access any official documents, please apply to the cantonal administration concerned; they will be able to help you.