The provision of legal aid is а priority activity of the AIP. In some cases in 2016, the AIP provided legal assistance at the initial stage of the information seeking process when the legal team provided advice and/or drafted a request for access to information. In another category of cases, legal aid was provided after a refusal to grant access to public information had already been issued.
There is a tendency for the number of consulted cases to decrease – there were 296 cases in 2016, while the number in 2015 was 322, and in 2014 – 391. The number of consultations provided on referred cases, however, remains high – 821 in 2016, a little more compared to 2015 when that number was 806.
The largest number of cases referred to AIP for legal assistance is cases of refusals to provide information – 113, followed by cases in which requestors needed a consultation prior to filing a request – 102.
An emerging tendency is the higher number of cases in which information is sought from local self-government bodies in 2016, compared to previous years when information was mostly sought from central executive bodies.
A considerable number of cases (101) have not been resolved until the end of 2016. Out of the total 296 referred cases, 40 have developed in court proceedings.
An essential part of the legal aid provided by the AIP’s legal team takes the form of preparing complaints to courts and representing requesters in the courtroom.
The Number of Cases Referred for Legal Aid
The number of cases referred to AIP for legal aid within the period January – December 2016 is 296. Seekers have requested assistance in person in our office, by e-mail, or by phone.
Depending on their characteristics and legal qualification, the following types of cases are identified:
- related to practices of non-fulfillment of obligations under the Access to Public Information Act by public bodies – 278 instances;
- related to violations of the right of personal data protection guaranteed under the Personal Data Protection Act – 8 instances;
- related to violations of the fundamental right to seek, receive, and impart information – 7 instances;
- related to the re-use of public sector information – 2 instances, etc.
The Most Active Information Seekers
The experience of AIP shows that the APIA is most frequently used by citizens, journalists, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In 2016, the largest number of consultations was provided to citizens who sought the assistance of AIP in 122 instances. In 79 cases, NGOs asked for legal assistance, while 67 cases were referred to AIP by journalists and AIP coordinators (all of them journalists) from central and local media. In 14 cases, the legal team of AIP was approached for legal advice by public officials, in 6 – by business persons, etc.
The Most Frequently Addressed Public Bodies
The number of cases in which information seekers requested information from local self-government bodies (mayors and municipal councils) is the largest – 105 cases, while information was sought from central executive bodies in 79 cases.
Less frequently, information was sought from regional units of the central executive bodies – 29 cases; from public-law bodies and organizations – in 23 cases; from judicial power bodies – 22, etc.
There are 17 registered cases in the AIP data base that do not involve an institution. These are cases in which our team has been approached for general advice on the law or on the litigation process.
The Most Frequently Used Grounds for Refusal
In 2016, the number of registered silent refusals remains high – 31. Most of the grounded refusals are related to the third party interests exemption – 15, and the protection of personal data – 12. The number of refusals grounded on the third party interests exemption has been decreasing. To illustrate, in 2015 their number was 24. This is mostly due to the changes in the provision of Art. 31 of the Access to Public Information Act (APIA) where the lack of response from the relevant third party is regarded as consent to the disclosure of the requested information, instead of a dissent as the case used to be.
The preparatory documents exemption provided by Art. 13, Para. 2 of the APIA was invoked in 6 refusals, the state secret – in 6, and the trade secret exemption – in 2.
The Most Frequently Sought Information in 2016
In 2016, the general topics on which information was mostly sought were: public money spending; prevention and revealing of corruption practices and wrongdoings; and accountability of public bodies. Based on the cases referred for legal aid, it is clear that there are still difficulties associated with obtaining information concerning results from inspections, information related to the protection of animals, environmental information, construction documents, prosecutor’s office activities, etc.
There is a considerable improvement in the transparency of information related to public procurement.
The new obligations for the provision of information electronically have made the process considerably easier for both the information seekers and the responsible officials within institutions. In practice, these obligations have expedited the provision of information, which is undoubtedly an improvement in the access to information area in Bulgaria.
The Areas of Highest Public Interest
Urban Planning and Road Infrastructure
Urban planning, renovation and construction of roads in the country, construction of public buildings, parks, and the renovation of emblematic city zones are, traditionally, sensitive topics for citizens, journalists, and NGOs working in the respective field. The requested information is unconditionally public and is mostly related to access to public registers of construction permits, displacement of illegal constructions, reports on the implementation of big infrastructure projects, including projects funded under EU programs, municipal urban development plans, and public procurement contracts for reconstructions of municipal property. This information should be easily accessible and in most cases should be available on the websites of the public bodies.
Information related to Public Money Spending
Information seekers have always been interested in the way public bodies spend their budgets. Lack of proactive transparency often triggers the filing of requests to obtain information not only regarding how much has been spent on a particular activity, but also regarding whether the spending was made in an efficient and economic manner and in line with the relevant procedures. During the past year, citizens were especially interested in the spending of public and budget money for the organization and holding of entertainment events, official trips, media services, legal and attorney services, and municipal companies.
There was a considerable number of requests seeking information related to the transparency of the work of the administration, the transparency of competitions held by public bodies, and the transparency of remunerations received by public officials under EU projects, etc.
Information on Inspections and Control Activities
Some of the information requested throughout the year was related to reports from inspections carried out by the authorities, identified violations and wrongdoings, audit reports, etc.
Access to Information Related to the Protection of Animals
Another topic of high public interest were the measures undertaken by the competent authorities to take care of stray animals. The majority of the municipalities have budget funded programs for overcoming problems with stray animals. In 2016, information was sought from the municipalities or from the municipal stray animals shelters regarding the execution of those programs and the public money spent on resolving existing problems in the area.
Information from Public Law Organizations
The number of cases related to seeking information from municipal schools, hospitals, state universities, municipal Water and Sewage System companies, and other public law organizations has been increasing. The requestors demand information concerning money expenditure, general contract conditions, the rules guaranteeing the safety of school-students, and the remuneration of the management.
NGOs and citizens working in the area of environmental protection were addressing AIP for consultation on particular cases. The information they sought mainly related to decisions or reports on environmental impact assessments carried out in the context of investment proposals and projects. The persisting lack of transparency with regards to the future management of national and nature parks remains problematic. Based on the referred cases, a weakness that pervaded the work of the competent institutions working in the environmental area was the inefficient and inadequate publication of information associated with the implementation of the implementation of the relevant legal obligations.
Information about the Management of State and Municipal Property
Requests have been filed for access to contracts for the use of municipal property, to information concerning state property management, and to disposal transactions of real estate private state property, etc
Information About the Decision-making Process
Although the information related to the decision-making process is subject to restrictions for a limited period of time, the law requires that the administration should consider the overriding public interest in the disclosure of such information. Based on the cases referred to the AIP for legal aid, such consideration and balancing of rights and interests does not happen. There are refusals to provide financial feasibility reports connected with Council of Ministers Decrees, preparatory documents related to the issuing of a mayor’s order, transcripts from sessions of working groups, etc.
Information Related to the Health, Life, and Safety of Citizens
Information that would prevent harms to the health, life, and property of citizens should be published on the Internet and the authorities which possess such information should use all possible information channels to disseminate it to the citizens. However, such information is being refused even after a request has been filed.
 The number of provided consultations is higher – 821, since in some cases more than one consultation was provided.