Info watchdog calls for modernization of access law
Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault holds a news conference after a Supreme Court of Canada decision with regards to access to information in Ottawa, Friday, May 13, 2011. (Fred Chartrand / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Published Friday, June 17, 2011 7:02AM EDT
OTTAWA - Canada's information watchdog is renewing her call for modernization of the law that's supposed to give people access to federal files.
In her annual report, Suzanne Legault says the 28-year-old Access to Information Act is out of touch with current practices and expectations.
Legault plans to analyze the legislation's shortcomings to provide parliamentarians with a review of what needs fixing.
Among the innovations she'd like to see is a duty to document information so there is an official record of important decisions made on behalf of Canadians.
The access law gives those who pay $5 the right to request information held by government departments and agencies.
Requests are to be answered within 30 days, but Legault's report says just over half are completed within that time limit.
Changes to the act could speed up processing of requests and help ensure more information is released, she says.
The law allows agencies to withhold passages or entire pages that fall under exemptions related to national security, legal privilege, advice from officials and many other areas.
"In terms of disclosure, fewer than one-fifth of all requests currently result in all information being released," says the report tabled Thursday in Parliament.
"Far from reflecting the presumption of disclosure inherent in the Access to Information Act, the exercise of discretion in determining which information to disclose has been skewed toward greater protection of information."
For example, the percentage of exemptions claimed for national security has increased threefold since 2002--03, the report says.
Legault didn't know whether the shift was due to sensitivities of the post 9-11 era.
An ombudsman for users of the act, she signed off on more than 2,000 complaint files for the second year in a row.
But 1,853 complaints were still in the queue at the end of March. Of these, 1,487 involved grievances from applicants who felt they were unfairly denied information.
In an interview, Legault said her office would focus on these refusal cases after spending time on complaints about foot-dragging. In particular she will look at whether departments are properly applying exemptions concerning international affairs and security.
"We're going to do a blitz on national-security cases to try to really deal with a lot of them," she said.
"We're making some progress, but there's a lot more work to be done."