The federal government has spent at least $120,000 to contest five orders from the Office of the Information Commissioner, according to documents submitted to the House of Commons.
In June, MP John Nater (Conservative, Perth-Wellington) asked the Liberal government for statistics on binding orders issued since June 2019, by government institution, how many orders were abided by, ignored, appealed or challenged in court and how much the government spent on lawyers.
June 2019 was when the minority Liberal government amended the Access to Information Act to allow the Information Commissioner to make orders to compel government institutions to respond to applicants and release documents.
The Sept. 18 response from Attorney General Arif Virani said total legal costs for the files amounted to approximatively $120,000.
“The total amount mentioned in this response is based on information contained in Department of Justice systems, as of June 14, and does not include amounts incurred directly by government departments who have contracted legal counsel outside of the Department of Justice,” said the response to Nater’s question made via the House of Commons’ order paper process.
Two of the Information Commissioner’s orders are about access to information requests to the Privy Council Office, which works closely with the Prime Minister’s Office, and another two involve Public Service and Procurement Canada, the government’s buying and contracting arm. The other was directed to Export Development Canada.
Three of the five cases concern delays and another is about refusal of disclosure. Litigation is ongoing in three of the cases, including one in which the applicant sought records from March 1, 2020 onward about the potential use of the Emergencies Act as a tool to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the course of four years, the Office of the Information Commissioner has issued 214 orders, according to the response to Nater. National Defence led the way with 22 orders received, followed by 17 each for Transport Canada and Public Service and Procurement Canada.
Others in double digits: RCMP (16), Canada Revenue Agency (14), Privy Council Office, Innovation, Science and Industry and Environment and Climate Change Canada (12 each), and Global Affairs Canada (11).
Twenty-one government institutions received one order, including Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., Canada Post, Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Public Health Agency of Canada, Trans Mountain Corporation and Vancouver Fraser Port Authority.
Notably, the response to Nater’s questions emphasized that the Information Commissioner, Caroline Maynard, does not monitor compliance with her orders.
“The commissioner has no power under the Act to force the institution to implement all aspects of her order. Once the commissioner issues her final report with her findings and order, she has exhausted her powers to investigate the allegations in the complaint,” said the response from the Office of the Information Commissioner.
“Institutions are legally obliged to abide by an order from the commissioner unless they apply to the Federal Court for a review of the matter that is the subject of the order.”
In June, Maynard was encouraged by recommendations to overhaul access to information from the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. However, she noted Canada’s Access to Information Act is nearing its 40th anniversary and “definitely showing its age.”
The United Nations’ International Day for Universal Access to Information, also known as Right to Know Day, is Sept. 28.
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