Deluge of information access requests are overloading local commissioners

The Access to Information Act received royal assent earlier this year

Deluge of information access requests are overloading local commissioners

The sheer volume of information access requests has swamped the Alberta office, contributing to something akin to “a crisis situation,” according to Jill Clayton, Commissioner of the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta.

“This is really getting out of hand,” said Clayton, one of several federal and provincial information and privacy commissioners who participated in an annual roundtable as a part of the Canadian Bar Association’s Access to Information and Privacy Law Symposium, which was held in Ottawa on Oct. 18.

According to a Dec. 9 news release, the commissioners publicly discussed the issues they experienced following major reforms to the federal Access to Information Act, which received royal assent on June 21. 

In 2015 to 2016, the federal Office of the Information Commissioner received almost 76,000 requests, while in the years 2018 to 2019, the number of requests ballooned to a figure as high as 120,000, said the CBA. Complaints about timeliness rose from 600 complaints in 2018 to around 2,000 complaints in 2019 in the federal Office of the Information Commissioner.

According to Caroline Maynard, Commissioner of the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, the removal of fees beyond the $5 filing fee back in 2016 is partly to blame for this massive growth.

“We have institutions telling us that they are having a hard time convincing the complainant or the requester to reduce the scope of their request, because they don’t have to pay for it,” Maynard said, later adding: “People are tired of waiting, so they are asking me to order agencies to meet certain deadlines.”

She said that, perhaps if she did issue such orders, ministers and deputy ministers would start providing institutions with the resources required to respond more quickly to requests.

The reforms allow government institutions to seek the Information Commissioner’s approval to refuse to act on requests believed to be vexatious, as well as requests indicative of bad faith or an abuse of the right of access.

Clayton and Michael Harvey, Commissioner of the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for Newfoundland and Labrador, both warned against “being too aggressive in applying the frivolous or vexatious label.”

“Every public body that I talk to universally complains about the pressures that they’re under and the resources that they have to dedicate to these issues, and I completely get that,” said Michael McEvoy, Commissioner, Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia.

“But I think sometimes we’ve forgotten first principles. The information that we’re talking about here actually belongs to the public.”

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