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Councils can bill property search firms for officers' time, court rules

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The European Court of Justice has ruled that councils can bill property search companies for the time officers spend on responding to applications for environmental information.

The ruling overturns an earlier ruling in domestic courses that said councils could only charge applicants for photocopying and postage.

Councils’ practice of billing for officers’ time was challenged in a test case brought by East Sussex and Property Search Group, to which the LGA became a party.

The case eventually landed in the ECJ.

The ECJ’s decision does not allow councils to charge for maintaining databases.

Virginia Cooper, lead partner at law firm Bevan Brittan, which acted for the LGA, described the decision as “landmark”.

“For the first time, [this] clarifies the costs that public authorities can recover for supplying environmental information,” she added.

“It is a positive legal outcome for local authorities that are under huge pressure to provide fast and accurate information on a wide range of environmental issues.”

She said “many thousands of requests” received each year for environmental information - whether or not for property searches - were “a significant call on valuable resources”.

LGA resources portfolio holder Claire Kober (Lab) said: “Councils use significant amounts of staff time and resources providing the hundreds of thousands of requests they can receive each year from property search agencies.

“It is right that local government can continue to charge for this and that local taxpayers aren’t expected to foot the bill.”

The case is separate from the on-going dispute between councils and various property search companies over a charge formerly levied for environmental information, which the government later conceded should have been free.


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