Facing case backlog, B.C.’s information commissioner says office may need more money

Facing case backlog, B.C.’s information commissioner says office may need more money

Information and privacy commissioner calls on governments to give more information to public

Those seeking public documents from British Columbia government bodies are increasingly being told to wait – and wait again – for the information they seek.

That has led the province’s information and privacy commissioner to urge B.C.’s public bodies and governments to do better at providing public information to citizens without them having to ask. But as he calls on government to find ways to meet provincial law, commissioner Michael McEvoy is also considering whether he needs more resources to ensure his own office is dealing with cases in a timely manner.

“I think government can do a lot better job of proactively releasing information that doesn’t require people to be asking for,” McEvoy said in a recent interview with The News. Abbotsford mayor Henry Braun expressed a similar sentiment last month, suggesting that more information could be released proactively. The city, which has set money aside to digitize historic records, is on track to handle 600 Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

The province’s FOI law applies to the provincial government, municipalities like Abbotsford, regional districts, public bodies like Fraser Health and WorkSafeBC, and Crown corporations like BC Hydro.

Those bodies have increasingly come to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) to ask for more time to meet those FOI requests.

Under the provincial FOI law, governmental organizations have 30 days to comply with FOI requests. In some cases, the body has another 30 days to meet the request, but if the organization wants even more time, they must request such an extension from the OIPC.

In 2017/18, the OIPC received 1,638 time-extension requests from public bodies. This year, it’s on pace to receive about 6,000 – a nearly four-fold increase.

McEvoy noted that the law stipulates that B.C.’s FOI law requires governments and public bodies to make certain categories of records available without a request.

“I think they can all be doing a lot better at not waiting for the access requests but getting records proactively released to the public and put on their website, for example, so you can access them easily.”

In a statement to The News, the province’s Ministry of Citizens’ Services said the B.C. government’s rising number of extensions are the result of an increasing number of requests. The statement from the ministry said the rate at which requests to the provincial government are processed on time has actually increased in recent years. The statement only relates to requests to the provincial government.

The ministry said the province has “expanded the types of records available proactively and continues to look at ways to make even more records available without having to make a FOI request. We are also exploring new technologies to make responding to FOI requests more efficient and secure, and to help with large-volume requests.”

But the OIPC has also found itself unable to meet legislated timelines to resolve disputes over what information should be made public. Last year, the office dealt with 1,400 cases in which it was asked to review redactions made by a public body before records were redacted. Most cases are resolved informally, but around 90 end up before an adjudicator. Although the law states that the office has 90 days to wrap up such cases, full inquiries are taking more than a year to complete now. Only about half are dealt with in 90 days, according to McEvoy.

The News learned of the delays after requesting a review of sweeping redactions of an audit commissioned by Fraser Health that deals with cancer treatment in B.C. Although an investigator told the Provincial Health Services Authority that it was his opinion the body must not refuse to release the audit, the PHSA continues to fight the full release of the documents. That could send the case to an inquiry.

The News was asked for consent to extend the timeline. It did so only after being told that the file would be closed if no consent was granted. The News requested the audit five months ago, after writing about Carol Young, a terminal cancer patient who struggled to access treatment in Abbotsford. She died in late October.

RELATED: Provincial health body refuses to release full findings of cancer triage system audit

RELATED: Carol Young, an artist who fought for timely cancer treatment in Abbotsford, dies before first solo show

“It does take too long and it’s not fair to you as the applicant or public bodies or the organization,” McEvoy said. “There is an old expression, ‘Justice delayed is justice denied,’ and I believe that.”

The complexity of cases, and the size of requests given the use of email, has risen in recent decades and added to the time it takes to wrap up cases. “But also adding to time is a resource question,” McEvoy said.

He said his office has allocated more resources to inquiries and significantly boosted the number of adjudicators. McEvoy said he is hoping that will speed things up.

It’s still too early to say if those additions are helping, he said. If they aren’t, McEvoy said he may ask for more money from the legislative committee that sets his office’s budget.

“At the end of the day, it is the public’s information and the public has a right of access to it, subject to narrow limitations.”

Do you have something to add to this story, or something else we should report on? Email:
tolsen@abbynews.com


@ty_olsen
Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

FILE – Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have agreed to sign a memorandum on rights and title with B.C. and Ottawa, but elected chiefs are demanding it be called off over lack of consultation. (Thom Barker photo)
Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, Lake Babine Nation get provincial funding for land, title rights

Government says it’s a new, flexible model for future agreements between Canada, B.C. and First Nations.

The property on which a residential school (pictured) that was torn down years ago in Lower Post is to be the location of a cultural centre. (Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre photo)
Lower Post residential school building to be demolished, replaced with cultural centre

Project to be funded by federal and provincial governments, Daylu Dena Council

Photo collage of loved ones lost to substance use and overdose. (Photo courtesy Moms Stop The Harm)
B.C. overdose deaths still rising 5 years after public health emergency declared

Moms Stop the Harm calls on B.C. to provide safe supply in response to deadly illicit drug use

Restaurant patrons enjoy the weather on a patio in Vancouver, B.C., Monday, April 5, 2021. The province has suspended indoor dining at restaurants and pubs until at least April 19 in B.C. due to a spike in COVID-19 numbers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. sets new COVID-19 daily record with 1,293 cases Thursday

New order allows workplace closures when infections found

The new 3,500 hectare conservancy in Tahltan territory is located next to Mount Edziza Provincial Park. (BC Parks Photo)
New conservancy protects sacred Tahltan land near Mount Edziza Provincial Park

Project is a collaboration between Skeena Resources, conservation groups and the TCG

In this image from NASA, NASA’s experimental Mars helicopter Ingenuity lands on the surface of Mars Monday, April 19, 2021. The little 4-pound helicopter rose from the dusty red surface into the thin Martian air Monday, achieving the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. (NASA via AP)
VIDEO: NASA’s Mars helicopter takes flight, 1st for another planet

The $85 million helicopter demo was considered high risk, yet high reward

B.C. Labour Minister Harry Bains. (Hansard TV)
B.C. moves to protect employee pay for COVID-19 vaccination

Most won’t need to take time off work, labour minister says

New figures show Canadian housing prices outpacing those in other developed countries. (Black Press Media file photo)
Canadian housing prices fastest rising in the world

Relative to 2000, housing prices have risen by a factor of more than 2.5

Russ Ball (left) and some of the team show off the specimen after they were able to remove it Friday. Photo supplied
80-million-year-old turtle find on B.C. river exciting fossil hunters

Remains of two-foot creature of undetermined species will now make its home at the Royal BC Museum

Joudelie King wants to get out and live life to the fullest, but there are places she can’t go because they don’t meet her accessibility needs. (submitted photo)
New online tool provides accessibility map for people with disabilities

The myCommunity BC map provides accessibility info for nearly 1,000 locations in the province

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

British Columbia’s provincial flag flies in Ottawa, Friday July 3, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Wildfire fanned by winds near Merritt prompts evacuation alert

BC Wildfire Service says the suspected human-caused blaze was fanned by winds

The Rogers logo is photographed in Toronto on Monday, September 30, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin
Rogers investigating after wireless customers complain of widespread outage

According to Down Detector, problems are being reported in most major Canadian cities

Most Read