Case Report – Court says administrative tribunal can publish personal information

11 Jul

The Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench issued a decision on March 9th that is significant to administrative tribunals and others with an interest in access to records of judicial and quasi-judicial decisions. The Court held that the Saskatchewan Automobile Injury Appeal Commission violates neither the Saskatchewan Health Information Protection Act, the Saskatchewan Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act nor the Charter by publishing decisions that include the personal information of claimants.

The Commission hears appeals of adjuster decisions under the Saskatchewan Automobile Insurance Act. It is required to hold open hearings (subject to its own discretion to order otherwise), required to provide written reasons and required to keep records it considers necessary for the proper conduct of its business. Given the nature of its appeals, Commission reasons often include a description of evidence related to claimants’ diagnoses, prognoses and treatment programs.

The applicant moved for relief in Court after the Commission denied her request to forgo publication of its reasons for deciding her claim or, alternatively, redact her name, age, occupation and other identifying details from its reasons. She argued that disclosure was prohibited by Saskatchewan HIPA, Saskatchewan FIPPA and the Charter.

The Court found that the Commission’s adjudicative mandate necessarily implies the power to publish its reasons in the internet and then rejected all three of the applicant’s arguments.

Its most significant finding was on Saskatchewan FIPPA, where it held that the disclosure of personal information in reasons was permissible because the Commission’s written reasons are excluded from the Act as “material that is a matter of public record.” It explained:

I accept all of these three definitions of “public record”. The Commission is a public adjudicative body required to make and keep its decisions. Section 92 of the Regulations states that Commission hearings are open to the public unless the Commission orders otherwise. Its decisions are open to the public even without publishing them on the web. Further, s. 95(1) and 95(2)(d) places an obligation on the Commission to compile a record of a hearing that was held, which consists in part of the written decision of the appeal commission. It is common ground that the decision is on file at the Commission and accessible to the public. The decision of the Commission contains information prepared by a government institution which has a duty to inquire into the issues associated with the hearing and record its findings permanently.

Further, it seems illogical that members of the public could sit at the hearing and listen to all of the evidence but not have access to the decision of the Commission. The written decision is the last piece of the hearing process. Public access to decisions made by the Commission is important to assist individuals in presenting their claims and understanding the decision-making process of the Commission and to further the principle of public access to adjudicative bodies.

The Court also held that publication would otherwise be permitted under the provision in Saskatchewan FIPPA that authorizes non-consensual disclosures of personal information, in part because the personal information in reasons for decisions is collected for a purpose consistent to the purpose of publishing such information.

The Court’s treatment of the applicant’s Charter argument is also worth note. The Court dismissed a section 7 “security of the person” claim, stating “Section 7 does not protect an individual who is suffering from the ordinary anxieties that a person of reasonable sensibility would suffer as a result of being involved in an open adjudicative process.” In the alternative, the Court held that the publication of reasons did not violate the principles of fundamental justice in light of the open courts principle, which it stressed applies equally to administrative tribunals.

This decision must be understood in the context of the longstanding dialogue between the Saskatchewan IPC and the Commission about the publication of its decisions, and is remarkable in that it conflicts so strongly with the position taken by the IPC in a 2005 investigation report (here) and a paper it published in early 2009 (here). The IPC (who did not participate in this court case) made a number of recommendations in 2005 that the Commission initially refused to follow, though it eventually came into line by issuing an internet posting policy effective June 1, 2008. The Commission’s new policy contemplates publication of reasons with personal identifiers and identifying information removed, while also granting the public access to physical copies of unredacted reasons.

Germain v. Automobile Injury Appeal Commission, 2009 SKQB 106 (CanLII).

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