There was some heartwarming news last week for those of us who cling to old fashioned ways of doing things. The quaint custom of actually following the law has apparently made a comeback, at least in terms of B.C. Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.
Two very important orders rolled out of the B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner's office, closing a massive loophole that allowed public bodies in this province to avoid properly responding to Freedom of Information requests.
The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act provides us all with the right to records, subject to the government showing reasons why information should not be released. Those reasons are contained in various exceptions to release, such as legal privilege or risk to a police investigation. These are set out in sections of the Act. If the government can't point to a section of the Act and show how the information they want to keep secret fits within that section, they have to release the record in its entirety.
That is the way the system is supposed to work. However, inventive minds in government offices are always working on ways to keep information out of the public eye, and in recent years they have been claiming that chunks of the records being requested through FOI did not have to be released because they were "outside the scope" of the request.
What this meant in practice was that the government could wiggle its way out releasing embarrassing information without the fuss and bother of having to show that the law actually allowed them to do it.
It was nice (for government) while it lasted, but now those days appear to be over.
In a decision about CCTV records held by the City of Vancouver, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner slammed the door on these tactics.
In the words of the adjudicator, "...even if only a portion of a record is responsive to an access request, it is still a responsive record and the public body is required to disclose the entire contents of the record unless an exception to disclosure ... applies."
And to make sure there was no doubt about the situation, a second Order was released a few days later, with a different adjudicator saying something very similar in a case involving a mother trying to get records about her deceased daughter"
"In my view, regardless of whether the information the Ministry has marked as 'out of scope of request' is responsive to the substance of the applicant's request, the Ministry cannot withhold this information for that reason. This is because the information is part of records that are responsive to the request."
What this means is a return to the old timey charms of proper interpretation of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, with public bodies being required to release requested records unless they can point to a section of the Act which allows them to refuse to release them.
And that is a very good thing.