Response times

The law requires that agencies grant or deny your request within 20 working days unless an “unusual circumstance” of a sort specifically described in the statute occurs.

Time and again, requesters find that their greatest obstacle to successfully using FOIA is delays in processing requests. Although the statute has always required agencies to respond to FOIA requests by granting or denying them (not just acknowledging them) within a short time frame, few agencies have consistently adhered to the time limits.

For journalists, the nearly routine failure of agencies to provide timely access to records has triggered the need to go outside the Act and get information from sources who may have seen the records in question.

The Electronic FOIA Amendments of 1996 addressed delays in three specific ways:

• They established expedited processing for some requesters in special circumstances.

• They provided for multi-track processing, allowing agencies to divide simple and more complex requests into different “tracks” and to process each set in order.

• They changed the standards under which delay could be considered acceptable.

The law permits courts to allow agencies additional time for response in “exceptional circumstances” provided the agency is exercising “due diligence” in getting responses out to requesters. The new amendments do not allow agencies to count routine delays as “exceptional circumstances.”

More generally, after the 1996 amendments, members of Congress expressed a hope that heightened day-to-day accessibility to the public of more government databases would diminish the need for FOIA requests. Unfortunately, for the most part, database accessibility has not reached the levels hoped for. But under the 2007 amendments, agencies that do not respond to requests within the statutory time period are now precluded from charging search fees (or copying fees for requesters such as the news media, who are not subject to search fees).