Alberta court issues important e-FOI decisions – faculty e-mails not in custody or control

The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench issued a pair of judgements about access to faculty e-mails on April 23rd, ultimately deciding that the Alberta OIPC erred in finding that faculty member e-mails relating to participation on a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada committee were in the custody or control of the University of Alberta.

Here are the four points of significance.

First, the Court held that the standard of review for custody or control decisions is reasonableness based on the strong presumption established by the Supreme Court of Canada last December in Alberta (Information and Privacy Commissioner) v. Alberta Teachers’ Association. This is a change, albeit a predictable one in light of Alberta Teachers’ Association. Despite the outcome in this case, custody or control decisions will generally be harder to challenge on judicial review than in the past.

Second, the Court held that the Association of Academic Staff of the University of Alberta did not have a right to notice of standing in the OPIC’s hearing as an affected party or as a matter of fairness. It held that the AASUA interest in the precedential effect of the OIPC’s finding did not give it an interest in the request under appeal sufficient to justify a right to notice and standing.

Third, the Court held that the OIPC erred in finding that the records at issue were under the university’s custody or control.

In part, the Court’s reasoning highlights the growing importance of assessing the purpose of access to information legislation in deciding custody or control issues. It held the OPIC erred by failing to recognize that the faculty member’s e-mails related to a grant funding process in which the university had no role. They therefore shed no light on the university’s own operation in furtherance of the statutory aims. Rather, the records at issue shed much more light on another public institution’s operations, something the Court said the OIPC also ought to have considered.

The Court’s reasoning also suggests that standard technical processes used in the management of business e-mail systems will not govern whether e-mails are in the custody or control of a public institution. It held that the OIPC erred by inferring too much from the routine backup of e-mails and the right to monitor. The Court said, “It was unreasonable to focus on the general computer use policy, rather than considering the particular records in question.”

Finally, the Court declined to address a bold argument by the AASUA that all records produced by faculty members in the course of participating in external committee work and in the context of their internal research and other academic work are not subject to a university’s custody or control. The Court said, “Academic freedom may be one relevant factor in considering whether a university has custody or control of records, but until the Commissioner considers that question in a hearing that raises the issue at first instance, this Court need not address it here.”

University of Alberta v. Alberta (Information and Privacy Commissioner), 2012 ABQB 247 (CanLII) (standard of review, custody or control).

Association of Academic Staff of the University of Alberta v University of Alberta, 2012 ABQB 248 (CanLII) (notice and standing).

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