Access Denied: Abuses and Failures Under BC’s FOI Act

An excerpt from the submission made to the Third Special Committee to Review the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act in Victoria, BC on February 3, 2010.

Access Denied: Abuses and Failures Under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act

By Morgan Blakley

Student – Environmental Law Centre, University of Victoria

Introduction

Access to government records is crucial for a healthy democracy. Yet despite this truism, the governments of British Columbia continue to vigorously fight the release of information. Excessive delays, high fee estimates, and over zealous censoring of released documents, among many other issues have caused a significant decline in use of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (the Act)1. Public interest groups are skeptical about using the Act and question whether it is even worth making submissions to this Committee. Since its inception, the governments of British Columbia have rendered the Act an impotent shell of what it can and should be.

As will be seen below, the government’s own data reveal that response times for requests have not improved. Hundreds of requests every year take more than an average of 170 days to resolve; that works out to just under half a year. For legislation whose base line for responses 2 to requests is 30 days, 170 days is not remotely acceptable. Public interest groups, media, and political parties continue to be discriminated against, and their request are met within the legal response time just over 50 percent of the time. 47 percent of responses by public bodies to these three groups are illegally slow.

Fees appear to be used to stonewall access to information and in at least one case, apparently used to retaliate for an appeal allowed under the Act. The Sierra Legal Defence Fund appealed a fee estimate of $ 24,000. In response, the Ministry increased its fee estimate to $173,000. Further fee barriers are evident in the electronic access regulations. The fee structure established in the Act’s regulations allows public bodies to charge nearly $1000 dollars an hour for mainframe access. This charge does not include the $30 per hour charge for creating a program to produce the records stored by government. It is made abundantly clear that the Act has been seriously undermined in many ways and desperately needs to be reformed and strengthened. In this digital era, there is no excuse for an open and accountable government to so thoroughly undermine access to information.

 

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