03/03/2015 04:05 EST | Updated 05/02/2015 05:59 EDT

Newfoundland and Labrador to reverse access to info restrictions

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - An independent report released Tuesday repudiates access to information restrictions the Newfoundland and Labrador government once staunchly defended and now says it will reverse.

It's a major U-turn since the Progressive Conservatives passed contentious changes to the law in June 2012.

Amendments to the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act hiked fees, increased protections for cabinet records and allowed ministers to reject requests as "frivolous."

The review panel led by former premier Clyde Wells included veteran journalist Doug Letto and former federal privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart. Its two-volume report makes 90 recommendations.

Premier Paul Davis said he will accept them all along with revamped legislation drafted by the committee to be introduced this spring.

"I am confident this will become an innovative model for the rest of the country," Davis said.

The recommendations scrap application fees, allow disclosure of data sets, and wipe out mandatory exemptions for ministerial briefing notes. Cabinet material should be proactively released whenever possible, the report says.

It also recommends new powers to allow the information commissioner to file a court order if the head of a public body ignores recommendations to release records. The onus would shift on to public officials to explain in court why documents should be protected, rather than forcing individual requesters to argue why they should be released.

Requests should generally be handled in 20 business days unless the information and privacy commissioner approves an extension, says the report.

It says the commissioner should also be able to see any record deemed exempt due to solicitor-client privilege, and says changes in 2012 allowing public bodies to unilaterally disregard requests should be reversed.

Wells said delays of up to three years for the review and release of documents are "totally unacceptable."

The report recommends streamlined procedures so that information is more often released while it's still useful.

Its conclusions amount to a rebuke of access to information restrictions brought in by the majority Tory government. Opposition parties filibustered three nights straight to fight what accountability critics said were regressive changes.

The Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy, in its 2012 national access-to-information study "Failing to Measure Up," specifically rapped Newfoundland and Labrador. It said the new restrictions "significantly weakened its access regime" even as the government defended them.

Wells stressed the review went well beyond the changes brought in through Bill 29. Still, those new measures raised many questions as they enhanced protection of privacy, he said.

"Bill 29 wasn't all bad," he said. "It wasn't all good, either."

Perceptions of secrecy have dogged the Tories ever since.

Former premier Tom Marshall announced the review last year, speeding up a mandated study of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act due this year.

The report says the Information Commissioner of Canada told the committee Bill 29 "tipped the balance in the (act) excessively in favour of non-disclosure."

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