Thank you very much.
I want to talk about the proposed reforms to the Access to Information Act from the B.C. perspective. I think I will start by characterizing the scope of the act, which is the ideal of openness and transparent access to information, so the public can be involved in the debate. However, we find most of the act is focused on exceptions to access, so I find it a bit ironic that the bulk of the act is about exceptions, as opposed to access, and openness, and transparency.
With that opening perspective, the same thing exists in British Columbia, but in terms of right of access and making requests for information, proposed Bill C-58 suggests to require the requester to specify the subject matter, the type of the record, and the period for which they are requesting.
The federal commissioner's position has been that she feels the current requirements in the act are sufficient. B.C.'s law requires an individual to request records in writing, to provide sufficient detail for an experienced employee to identify them, and to submit their requests to the public body the applicant believes has the information. In other words, there is a duty to assist in B.C. and that is enshrined in our legislation, so you can't just turn away an applicant. You must assist them in getting the records that they are looking for. In some cases, if a request goes to the wrong ministry, it can be transferred to the correct ministry, rather than saying there are no responsive records.
In order to refuse an access request, Bill C-58 will allow institutions to decline to act on a request if it does not include enough detail, if the person has already been given access or can access by other means, or in circumstances where the volume of pages could interfere with operations. The federal commissioner is also concerned about that because she believes it's overly broad.
In B.C., public bodies must apply to my office for an authorization to disregard a request and we will then review that. Public bodies have a duty to assist applicants and as part of that duty, they may ask the applicant for more information about what records they are requesting for the purpose of assisting that individual. However, they cannot ask why they are requesting it.
Public bodies can charge an applicant fees to respond to a request, except when that request is the applicant's own personal information. This increases the public body's duty to assist, as the fees assist in some level of cost recovery, but typically not entirely, for some requests that would otherwise appear disruptive to operations, but just because it might be disruptive to operations does not mean that the public body must not respond to the request. Quite often, our office does receive complaints around the fee structure that a public body proposes to charge and often those are at issue in terms of gaining access to the records.
As it relates to the coverage of the Prime Minister's Office, Parliament, and courts, the issue is that the Prime Minister's Office, Parliament, and the courts are not covered under Bill C-58. It does provide for mandate of proactive disclosure of certain records for those entities, but with timelines longer than the regular access requests. The commissioner has no oversight over the information that those entities would disclose proactively and an institution can decline to respond to someone, if they are requesting information that the institution has already disclosed.
In B.C., our law applies to the office of the premier, to the ministers, and to cabinet records, but not to court records. The access to records held by these government departments is not unfettered. Exceptions do exist and they are clearly in our act.
For example, our act prohibits a public body from disclosing information that would reveal the substance of deliberations of the executive council or any of its committees, including advice, recommendations, policy considerations, draft legislation, or regulations submitted or prepared for submission to the executive council or any of its committees.
The government receives many access requests for records held by those government departments each year and the records are fundamental to the accountability and to the object of access to information.
Bill C-58 proposes to insert the words “to enhance the accountability and transparency of federal institutions in order to promote an open and democratic society and to enable public debate on the conduct of those institutions”. That's proposed to be put in the purpose clause. If that's the purpose, then access should be extended to those offices where those decisions are made.
On order-making power, the proposal is that the courts would review the Information Commissioner's order de novo, allowing for submission of other information and other facts after the investigation by the Information Commissioner. In B.C. we have full order-making power and orders can be registered with a supreme court. These orders are produced by adjudicators after an investigation and mediation process. It's a separate process. The two do not overlap.
In most cases, parties do not apply for a judicial review of our orders or a decision of my office, although they can. In B.C., with limited exceptions, such as in cases where a public body is claiming solicitor-client privilege over records, the courts have determined that the appropriate standard of review of my decisions is reasonableness. They review all our decisions and our orders on that basis.
If Bill C-58 were to be implemented in B.C., it would not provide incentive for public bodies to be meaningfully engaged with our office in the investigation or mediation phase. We resolve probably 95% to 99% of our investigations at the investigation mediation phase and rarely have to go to orders. That's a much better process for the applicant and the public body.
In other areas of concern, there is the transition period. Parts of the bill that relate to complaints to the Office of the Information Commissioner and the commissioner's power to investigate would not take effect for a year. It would only be applicable to those complaints received after that effective date. In British Columbia, our act was amended in 2011, and it came into force immediately upon royal assent. That just removed any uncertainty between applicants and government about their requirement to respond under those new conditions.
I will make a little note on information management. The government is now telling my office that they get requests for access to information that may involve hundreds of thousands of pages. They're not allowed to ignore those requests because of the size. In fact, we've encouraged them to start to disclose on a staged basis. But I note that if the information systems designed by government ministries to manage their operations also included thoughtful consideration of the requirement for access to information and transparency of their work, the work taken to respond to requests would be much easier and simpler as the information systems would already be anticipating that the information might be having to be disclosed.
It doesn't help in today's world but as we're designing our information systems going forward it's as if we say privacy by design to protect personal information, but it's access by design to enable the transparency and the delivery of those records to people who have a valid reason to know them.
I'll end there.