03/31/2015 10:39 EDT | Updated 05/31/2015 05:59 EDT

Access To Information Act Must Extend To All Branches Of Government: Watchdog

OTTAWA - The Access to Information Act should be extended to all branches of government — including the offices that support Parliament and the courts — as part of sweeping changes, says a federal watchdog.

In a report on what she calls a "long overdue" modernization of the law, information commissioner Suzanne Legault proposes tighter timelines in the processing of access requests and changes to ensure exceptions in the act protect only what is strictly necessary.

The report tabled Tuesday also advocates giving the commissioner the power to order agencies to release records. Currently when a requester complains, the watchdog can only try to persuade departments to comply and, if that fails, head to court — which can be time-consuming and costly.

"The commissioner's ability to issue binding orders would instill in the appeals process more discipline and more predictability," Legault said.

Another recommendation would require the government to ensure major decisions are documented. Legault said that doesn't mean every phone call or email must be preserved, but important actions must have a record trail.

In all, she offered 85 recommendations for improvements. "Clearly, in my view, there is a need for change."

Treasury Board President Tony Clement, minister responsible for the law, said during question period the government would examine the recommendations.

New Democrat MP Charlie Angus called the report "a damning indictment" of the Conservative government's culture of secrecy.

Clement touted the number of requests the government has processed over the last nine years, but he did not address the quality or timeliness of those releases.

A coalition of 11 rights groups, including the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian Association of Journalists and PEN Canada issued a joint statement urging the government to overhaul the access law, using Legault's recommendations as a template.

"Without an effective system to ensure adequate access to information and to guarantee government transparency, our democratic system is seriously undermined," their letter said.

Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch, one of the signatories, said there has been enough study. "We're really trying to put the pressure on for action right now."

The access law, which took force on July 1, 1983, allows people who pay $5 to ask federal agencies for records ranging from audits and expense reports to internal emails and briefing notes.

Agencies must answer requests within 30 days or provide a good reason why an extension is necessary.

Many users of the law complain about lengthy delays in processing requests and blacked-out passages in the records that are eventually released. In addition, dozens of agencies with federal ties fall outside the access act.

Legault said there has been a steady erosion of access rights in Canada over the last 30 years, turning the access law into a shield against transparency that encourages delay.

"Having a modern access-to-information law will facilitate the creation of a government culture that is open by default," she said.

Legault recommended extending the law to all institutions that perform a public function or that are controlled or funded — in whole or in part — by the government.

The offices of federal ministers, including the prime minister, should be covered, along with institutions that support Parliament and the courts, she said.

In order to prevent delays, she recommends limiting time extensions to what is truly necessary, to a maximum of 60 days. Additional extensions would require the permission of the information commissioner.

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