Attorney General: FOIA does not impose deadline for fulfilling request

Michigan AG opinion states that the Freedom of Information Act does not include a deadline for fulfilling a request.

Each year in mid-March, we celebrate Sunshine Week. Sunshine Week is a national initiative organized by the American Society of News Editors to educate the public about open government and celebrate government transparency.

One of the laws that protects transparency and open government is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This act protects the public’s right to access government documents, with certain restrictions. While the act does protect this right, there are often complaints about the cost associated with a FOIA request, or how long government bodies can take to provide the information requested.

The Act is clear that a public body has five days to reply to a FOIA request (MCL 15.235 (2)). This can be extended for up to 10 days once. The Act, however, is less clear on how quickly a public body must actually provide the documents requested. The Act states only that:

“The response shall also contain a best efforts estimate by the public body regarding the time frame it will take the public body to comply with the law in providing the public records to the requestor.” (MCL 15.234 (8))

A recent Attorney General opinion states that based on this, FOIA does not impose a specific time by which a public body must fulfill a request once it has been granted. The opinion further states that the public body is “guided by, but not bound by,” the best efforts estimate it provided in granting the request. The estimate is supposed to be made “in good faith,” a term also not defined in the Act, but which the opinion argues means it must be made honestly and without intention to defraud or delay the requestor.

While the clear expectation is that requests be fulfilled in a reasonable amount of time, it’s not hard to envision request being delayed in being fulfilled, and some complaints along these lines have been made. In response to this, there is currently legislation in the Michigan House of Representatives setting a 60-day deadline for documents to be released under FOIA.

This article is one of many Michigan State University Extension articles and resources related to the Freedom of Information Act. Others can be found on the MSU Extension website and Extension has training programs on complying with the Michigan FOIA. This program is one of many MSU Extension offerings for local governments. Those in MSU Extension that focus on Government and Public Policy provide various training programs. Contact your local Government and Public Policy educator for more information.

Those in Michigan State University Extension that focus on Government and Public Policy provide various training programs, which are available to be presented in your county.  Contact your local Government and Public Policy educator for more information.

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