Responding to FOIA requests can be a full-time job
Any attorney who works for a government agency is likely familiar with FOIA requests. Such requests are an important part of our democracy, but they can be a time-consuming activity for a government legal department to handle. It can also be difficult to keep all of the moving pieces involved with FOIA requests organized.
Legal Files Software offers Legal Files, a legal matter management system that is able to streamline the process of responding to FOIA requests—and provides information and guidance to help legal practitioners gain a better understanding of best practices for handling FOIA requests.
Understanding which agencies are subject to FOIA requests
As a country, we believe that people have a right to know about their government. Our president, Congress and Supreme Court all acknowledge that this is a vital part of democracy. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has given the public the right to request access to records from any federal agency since 1967. This means that federal agencies must disclose any information in response to a FOIA request unless it falls under one of nine exemptions, including law enforcement, national security and personal privacy.
The FOIA does more than require federal agencies to respond to requests for information. It also obligates federal agencies to proactively post certain types of information online, including records that have been frequently requested by the public.
Because the federal FOIA only applies to federal agencies, state and local government agencies are not subject to it. However, they are required to comply with state acts, which, of course, vary from state to state. This can make the process even more complicated.
Some state public records disclosure acts may be limited to state-regulated agencies, but others may apply more broadly. Each state also defines the term “agency” differently, meaning that one type of agency may be subject to state reporting laws in one state, but not in the neighboring state. Additionally, public hospitals, public schools and universities may also be considered agencies under state law.
Further complicating the FOIA is the concept of government corporations. For example, the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation is considered an agency under the FOIA. Basically, any government corporation or government-controlled private entity is subject to the FOIA if it is under substantial government control.
It can be difficult to determine which agencies are subject to federal and state acts that dictate requests for information. However, the complexity doesn’t end with determining which agencies are subject to these laws. It extends to determining how to stay in compliance when responding to a FOIA request.
Developing an organized, standardized process for responding to FOIA requests
Responding to a FOIA request isn’t as simple as just finding and producing documents. Attorneys and their legal staff must follow specific guidelines for response times and tracking. Legal Files can help agencies keep track of every step in the FOIA process and complete FOIA requests in an organized and efficient fashion.
Under the federal FOIA, the receipt of the request for information starts the time clock, and an agency typically has 20 days to respond. The agency must assign a tracking number to the request if it will take longer than 10 days to process it. Additionally, the agency must provide the date of receipt and an estimated completion date to the person or entity making the request.
Tracking deadlines is clearly an important component of processing FOIA requests. Many government agencies rely on Legal Files to help them keep track of these deadlines and produce the necessary documents to stay in compliance with the act.
Legal Files can also help with the search phase of processing a FOIA request. The federal FOIA requires all agencies to conduct a search that is “reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents.” This duty to search means that the agency must make reasonable efforts to search for records in electronic form. Because Legal Files offers a user-friendly, electronic database for all types of information, both legal and non-legal, an agency will find that the software makes searching for specific records and documents a breeze.
An agency will sometimes find documents that are relevant to a FOIA request, but that cannot be produced because of attorney-client privilege or because they fall under one of the exceptions to the FOIA. In these cases, attorneys and their legal staff will need software to handle redactions and keep track of which documents were not produced and why. Legal Files offers the tools to help government agencies perform all of these important tasks.
The tracking features in Legal Files are also helpful when an agency is processing FOIA requests. Not only can the software keep track of where the FOIA request is in the process, it can also track important aspects of the request such as whether the mandated payment was received from the person or entity making the request.
Additionally, because the software can track who is handling the request and how it is progressing, it can also be used to determine staffing and budget needs. If an agency finds that it is overwhelmed with FOIA requests and is struggling to meet the response deadlines, it can use this information to request an increase in staffing.
Although the software is a valuable tool for FOIA legal case management and processing, it isn’t all that Legal Files offers. The team at Legal Files has extensive experience in helping agencies handle FOIA requests. During this time, the team has developed best practices to help clients streamline their own FOIA request response processes.
The importance of FOIA in today’s world
FOIA requests have become more common. This means that it is more important than ever to have a way to efficiently manage these time-consuming requests. Legal Files offers the tools to manage FOIA tracking, monitoring and performance while also helping agencies gain insight into their staffing and budget needs.