Today, the CJEU released a decision whose potential impact on Member States' administrative practice will have to be carefully weighed in the coming months.
The main question before the Court was the following: (how much) can citizens be required to pay in order to get a transcript of their data being processed by an administration?
Access to personal data is a very important component of European data protection, last but not least because it is instrumental to other pillars thereof (such as the right to have one's data deleted). In the case at hand, Ms X wanted to get a transcript of her residence information over a number of years from her municipality, in order to claim that the notice concerning a certain fine had been sent to the wrong address. Her municipality provided her a certified transcript of her past and present addresses levying a charge of ca 12 euros. X consteted the payment request before a local court, which denied her claim. The Court of Appeal of 's Hertogenbosch issued a preliminary ruling request.
Dutch law does not leave authorities free to charge any price for the transmission of certificates. The sum levyed must be such that "the income from that fee does not exceed the related expenditure". It is not guaranteed, however, that the "related expenditure" considered only concerns the transmission costs. Besides, from the wording of Directive 95/46 which sets European principles in the matter, it is not clear whether authorities can claim a fee at all.
From the English and Dutch versions of the Directive, it could seem that the data should be communicated without excessive delay and free of charge. Other language versions, however, inter alia the German, Spanish, Italian and French ones, do not seem to grant a similar interpretation. All in all, the Court considers there is no prohibition for MS to levy a fee on this "service" [par 21].
If a sum can be charged, is there a limit to it? The Court considers that such limit should be carefully considered in order to make sure that the need to pay a charge is not likely to prevent anyone from accessing her of his personal data [par 29]. It is in principle up to national courts to ascertain whether the fee levied respects this condition. However, just after having stated this principle, the Court gives a much more precise criterion: the fee should not exceed the costs which the authority has to incur in order to transmit the information. National courts have to "carry out any verifications necessary" to ascertain whether such requirement has been respected [par 31].
What will this imply for national burocracies? There's quite something to be curious about.