POLITICS

Privacy commissioner calls nearly 6-year delay for information 'unconscionable'

01/07/2013 01:10 EST | Updated 03/09/2013 05:12 EST
REGINA - The Saskatchewan Ministry of Justice is being scolded for what the province's privacy commissioner calls "an unconscionable delay" in responding to a man's request for access to records.

Commissioner Gary Dickson suggests that if the Justice Department can't do better, it may be time for another ministry to take over.

Dickson began an investigation after a man requested information in March 2007 and was denied access.

"I am struck by the profound lack of respect shown for the applicant and his right to access records that are fundamentally about him," Dickson wrote in the postscript of a report released Wednesday.

"One must, however, consider why it has taken five years and nine months to get to this point.

"The review report details the actions by both my office and Justice, but it does not contain a root-cause analysis which might help Saskatchewan residents understand what can only be described as an unconscionable delay."

The man was asking for records in an old court case in which he was acquitted of criminal harassment. The report shows Dickson's office repeatedly asked the ministry for information on the documents and reasons why the ministry wouldn't release them.

The report says the ministry presented an inadequate initial submission in 2007 and was given time to supplement it. That wasn't received until December 2011, despite numerous reminders from the privacy commissioner.

Dickson said there were "protracted delays at almost every step of our review process.

"The Justice Ministry invoked four different exemptions. We found one of them had been applied appropriately. There was some legal advice that should have been withheld and Justice agreed to withhold it," Dickson said in an interview.

"But the other three exemptions we found that they did not apply."

Justice Minister Gord Wyant agreed that the length of time for the review was unacceptable.

"We could have done a better job on this particular matter. It wasn't handled in a timely and appropriate manner and there's really no defending it," Wyant said in phone interview from Saskatoon.

However, Wyant suggested the case was an anomaly. He said 91 per cent of the time, ministries have responded to requests within 30 days.

"I think overall government is very, very responsive," he said.

"I think it's a little unfair to take one or two incidents and hold them up as an example of some lack of transparency."

Dickson said since the Justice Department trains people in government to manage access requests, it should lead the way in that area.

"You would hope that the Justice Ministry would be modelling the very best practices because that's the most impactful way of teaching other people in government how to respond to access requests," he said.

"Well, that has not been certainly the experience in this case."

Dickson said in the postscript that if the department "can do no better" than what is documented in the report, it may be time to consider relocating the access and privacy branch to a different ministry. For example, such work falls under Government Services in Alberta, Ontario and New Brunswick.

It's not the first time Dickson has taken the government to task for refusing to release information and ignoring repeated requests to do so.

Last June, the privacy commissioner issued a report saying his pleas to Executive Council, the ministry that supports Premier Brad Wall and cabinet, to release ministerial briefing books had gone unheeded for years.

"If I thought this was an isolated incident, I wouldn't have bothered writing the postscript," said Dickson.