Note: This page covers information specific to Virginia. For general information concerning access to government records see the Access to Government Records section of this guide.
If you are a citizen of Virginia, you have a statutory right to inspect a vast number of Virginia’s public records using the state's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). See title 2.2, chapter 37 of the Virginia Code, (Va. Code), stating that "all public records shall be open to inspection and copying by any citizens of the Commonwealth . . ." You may be required to provide your name and address so the records-keeper can verify that you are a citizen of Virginia. Va. Code § 2.2-3704(A).
What Records Are Covered in Virginia
What Government Bodies Are Covered
You are entitled to inspect and copy records of "public bodies" under the state’s FOIA. The term "public body" is defined broadly and includes all cities, counties, school boards, planning commissions, legislative bodies, boards, bureaus, districts, or agencies of the Commonwealth. The statute also includes organizations, corporations, or agencies that are principally supported by public funds. Va. Code § 2.2-3701. You may wish to consult Access to Government Meetings in Virginia and Virginia State Court Records for more information on how to access records from those government entities.
What Types of Records Can Be Requested
You can inspect all "public records" of Virginia’s public bodies. The term "public record" refers to all writings and recordings that are prepared, owned by, or in the possession of a public body, regardless of physical form. Va. Code § 2.2-3701.
Virginia’s FOIA lists over 100 specific types of records that are exempt from public disclosure. These include:
- Personnel records, legal memoranda, and examination materials Va. Code § 2.2-3705.1
- Records relating to public safety Va. Code § 2.2-3705.2
- Records relating to administrative investigations Va. Code § 2.2-3705.3
- Educational records and certain records of educational institutions Va. Code § 2.2-3705.4
- Health and social service records Va. Code § 2.2-3705.5
- Proprietary records and trade secrets Va. Code § 2.2-3705.6
- Records of specific public bodies and certain other limited exceptions Va. Code § 2.2-3705.7
- Certain information in criminal records, such as the identity of a victim Va. Code § 2.2-3706
Refer to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press’ Open Government Guide: Virginia for more information about the exemptions under Virginia’s FOIA.
How to Request Records in Virginia
According to the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, you can make your request in any medium the public body itself uses, including e-mail. The Virginia FOIA does not specify that the request be in writing, but it will probably help the public body better understand your request if you make it in writing. Try to be as specific as possible in your request so the public body can find the exact records you are seeking. The Coalition offers this useful request letter generator which may help you create your request.
The public body may make "reasonable charges" for accessing, duplicating, supplying or searching for the records. However, these costs may not exceed the actual costs incurred by the body. At your request, the public body must estimate any charges in advance. Va. Code § 2.2-3704(F). If the public body determines in advance that charges for producing the requested records are likely to exceed $200, the public body may require the requester to agree to payment of a deposit in the amount of the advance determination before continuing to process the request. Va. Code 2.2-3704(H).
Within five working days, the public body must either provide you with the records or tell you why they cannot comply with your request. Va. Code § 2.2-3704(B). The public body can get an additional seven days to fulfill your request if necessary. If the public body needs more time to respond to your request because it needs to search an extraordinary amount of records, it should contact you and try to come to an agreement about the production of the records. If this fails, then the public body can petition the appropriate court for extra time to comply with the request. 2.2-3704(C). If the agency does not respond to your request within the five working days, it is considered a denial of the request and constitutes a violation of the Virginia FOIA. Va. Code § 2.2-3704(E).
What Are Your Remedies in Virginia
If the public body denies your request or does not respond to your request, you should always first try to contact the body and resolve the issue. If the public office is relying on an exemption, ask the records-keeper to release the nonexempt portions of the record with the exempt portions removed or redacted.
If you are not satisfied with the public body's response, you may file a lawsuit asking the court to force the body to comply. In such cases, the public body bears the burden of proving that the exemption was justified. Va. Code § 2.2-3713. Refer to our section on Finding Legal Help for more information on how to get legal assistance to help you assess the merits of a potential lawsuit against the public agency.