Ontario Court says FOI statute fails in providing access to administrative tribunal records

29 Apr

Yesterday the Ontario Superior Court of Justice held that the Ontario Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act violates section 2(b) of the Charter because it goes too far to protect the privacy of parties, witnesses and others in matters heard by the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, Ontario Labour Relations Boards and other statutory tribunals.

The Toronto Star brought the Charter application. It argued that the access regime created by FIPPA is too restrictive and too slow to meet its Charter-based right of access to “adjudicative records” – records of things filed before tribunals like pleadings and exhibits as well as tribunal decisions. A number of Ontario tribunals process requests for adjudicative records formally under FIPPA while others provide access more informally. The Star argued that the informal process must be the norm.

Justice Morgan allowed the application and declared that FIPPA violates the Charter by imposing a presumption of non-disclosure of “personal information” in adjudicative records. It is a puzzling decision for two reasons.

First, there is virtually no discussion about whether the open courts principle ought to apply to administrative tribunals. The Court’s application of the open courts principle appears to be derived from a provision requiring openness in the Statutory Powers Procedure Act:

All parties acknowledge that administrative hearings governed by the Statutory Powers Procedure Act (“SPPA”) are required to be open to the public. In principle, therefore, it is uncontroversial that “[t]he ‘open court’ principle” – at least in some version – “is a cornerstone of accountability for decision-making tribunals and courts.”

One might argue that the Court elevates a statutory presumption (which ought to be read in harmony with FIPPA) into a constitutional right. One might also argue that there are policy imperatives for administrative justice that weigh against recognition, in respect of tribunals, of the same level of openness that applies to courts – expediency and ease of access, for example. These two imperatives in particular are likely to suffer if administrative tribunal records are treated similarly to court records.

Second, the Court’s decision rests on what it says is a flawed “presumption of non-disclosure” – one that makes personal information in adjudicative records presumptively inaccessible. According to the Court this presumption arises out of the framing of FIPPA’s section 21 “unjustified invasion of privacy exemption,” which states that personal information shall be withheld unless its disclosure would not constitute an “unjustified invasion of privacy.”

It is too strong to call this a presumption, particularly in light of section 53 of FIPPA, which states, “Where a head refuses access to a record or a part of a record, the burden of proof that the record or the part falls within one of the specified exemptions in this Act lies upon the head.” To the contrary, all records in an institution’s custody or control are presumptively accessible under FIPPA, with limitations on the right of access dictated to be “limited and specific” as stipulated FIPPA’s purpose provision.

It’s quite arguable that FIPPA grants a right of access subject to a balancing of interests that has been carefully calibrated by the legislature and ultimately governed by an expert tribunal – the Information Privacy Commissioner/Ontario. Justice Morgan did not hide his views about the IPC, stating “In terms of the expertise of the institution heads and, in particular, the IPC, it is fair to say that the jury is still out. ”

 Toronto Star v. AG Ontario, 2018 ONSC 2586.

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