Freedom of Information Act Under Fire

Victoria, BC – Failure to comply with its own access to information rules is undermining the BC’s Governments claims of transparency and accountability according to a report by Dogwood Initiative and the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Clinic.

“It’s a nightmare,” says Dogwood Initiative’s Eric Swanson, referringto the process of obtaining information via the Act. “This essentialcomponent of our democracy has been systematically neglected and nowstands withered.”

In a presentation Wednesday to the Special Committee reviewing the Freedom to Information and Protection of Privacy Act the groups cited excessive delays, high fee estimates, and over zealous censoring of released documents, as among the many issues that have rendered the Act ineffective.

“It’s a nightmare,” says Dogwood Initiative’s Eric Swanson, referring to the process of obtaining information via the Act. “This essential component of our democracy has been systematically neglected and now stands withered.”

In 2008, 47% of requests made by public interest groups, the media, and political parties, the groups most responsible for holding government accountable in our democratic system, were not met in the legal time frame. It took five years for the Freedom of information and Privacy Association to gain access to some of the 600-plus page contract between the government and IBM. In contrast other public bodies had their requests responded to in a legal time frame 94% of the time.

The submission also cited the problem of excessive fees. In one case, the Sierra Legal Defence fund received a fee estimate of $24,600. After disputing the fee, the fee estimate increased to $172,947.50.

High fees and delays are also being blamed for 57% decline in Freedom of Information requests in the last 12 years. In 1995 there were 3263 requests and only 1403 in 2007.

“The Act promises not only an open and accountable government, but a government that in good faith desires to be open and accountable. These promises have not been honoured,” says Morgan Blakley author of the report and a member of the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Clinic.

The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) requires that the Act be reviewed by a special committee of the Legislative Assembly every six years, and the Third Special Committee will report to the House by May 31, 2010. The deadline for submissions to the Committee has been extended to February 28, 2010.

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