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Helping California citizens obtain public records under the California Public Records Act and the federal Freedom of Information Act

We Have a Right To Know!


California Public Records Act (PRA)

Federal Freedom of Information Act

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The California Public Records Act (PRA)is one of many "sunshine laws" enacted by state governments, patterned after the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). These laws generally require that government agencies provide any information that they are using to conduct the people's business, to interested persons, upon request, and for only a modest charge. The acts have numerous exemptions, mostly to protect privacy.

The sunshine laws are an important check on government misconduct, since they allow citizens to check up on government actions. They are also an important tool for environmental and other activists.

California's law is a valuable tool, but there are some major problems. First, many agencies flout the law. Small city governments, for example, sometimes develop a practice of refusing to provide records they're required to provide under the PRA. They get used to doing this because they're never called to account.

The second major problem with the PRA is that enforcement is expensive and time-consuming. To enforce it, after an agency denies your request forrecords you're entitled to, you must sue. Legal fees for a PRA lawsuit range from $50,000 to $100,000 (not counting any appeal). Some lawyers are willing to undertake these lawsuits on a contingency basis, expecting to recover from the defendants when they win, since the PRA provides for mandatory attorney's fees for prevailing plaintiffs. But the average person who has been denied the right to public records is unlikely to spend all the money and time required for a lawsuit.

The third problem is that it is still not firmly established that the PRA applies to data, in addition to paper documents or electronic images of paper documents. The text of the statute indicates that it does apply to data, but, with one limited exception, there are no court cases establishing this principle.