Information not free in British Columbia: report

The government of British Columbia breaks its own law on meeting freedom of information requests nearly half the time, reports a study
(pdf) submitted to a legislature committee reviewing the province’s
Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. The study, by
student Morgan Blakley of the University of Victoria’s Environmental
Law Centre, was done on behalf of the Dogwood Initiative. A Globe and Mail story carried the headline “B.C. government accused of ‘rampant censorship.’

“B.C. government accused of secrecy and stonewalling,” reported the CBC on the committee hearings. “B.C. government spends more energy dodging information access laws than obeying them,” said Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer. “B.C. blasted over delays and high fees for those seeking gov’t info,” headlined the Canadian Press.

Meanwhile three Vancouver Sun reporters investigated the situation in the province’s court system, surveying 10 courthouses for responses to requests for the
same types of files at each registry. The headline on their story pretty much sums it up: “Access Denied: Court disclosure rules inconsistent across B.C.”

Excerpt from the introduction to Blakley’s report:

“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 responses2
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
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.”