What’s not to say about Sherman Estate?

We all know that the Supreme Court of Canada decided Sherman Estate v Donavan on June 11th. I just got to it today, and was surprised at its significance to information and privacy law beyond the open courts principle itself. Here is a quick note on its three most salient broader points.

The Court held that records filed in court by estate trustees seeking probate ought not to have been sealed given the presumption of openness that applies to all court proceedings. In doing so, however, it recognized for the first time that privacy alone (whether or not it encourages access to justice) could be “an important public interest” that warrants a departure from the presumption.

Point one – sensitive information is information linked to the biographical core

Most significantly, the Court said that not any privacy interest will qualify. Privacy is such a subjective, difficult and confused concept that many individuals with genuinely felt “sensibilities” must be precluded from claiming that their privacy interest weighs against the openness of a court proceeding. A privacy interest only qualifies as “an important public interest” if the information at stake is “sufficiently sensitive such that it can be said to strike at the biographical core of the individual.”

The biographical core is a concept first articulated in R v Plant in 1993 and has since been criticized by privacy advocates as a concept that limits privacy protection. Yet here it is, front and centre as the limitation on privacy that will now protect the transparency of our justice system. The Court links the biographical core to the protection of human dignity, as it explains in the following paragraph:

Violations of privacy that cause a loss of control over fundamental personal information about oneself are damaging to dignity because they erode one’s ability to present aspects of oneself to others in a selective manner (D. Matheson, “Dignity and Selective Self-Presentation”, in I. Kerr, V. Steeves and C. Lucock, eds., Lessons from the Identity Trail: Anonymity, Privacy and Identity in a Networked Society (2009), 319, at pp. 327‑28; L. M. Austin, “Re-reading Westin” (2019), 20 Theor. Inq. L. 53, at pp. 66‑68; Eltis (2016), at p. 13). Dignity, used in this context, is a social concept that involves presenting core aspects of oneself to others in a considered and controlled manner (see generally Matheson, at pp. 327‑28; Austin, at pp. 66‑68). Dignity is eroded where individuals lose control over this core identity‑giving information about themselves, because a highly sensitive aspect of who they are that they did not consciously decide to share is now available to others and may shape how they are seen in public. This was even alluded to by La Forest J., dissenting but not on this point, in Dagg, where he referred to privacy as “[a]n expression of an individual’s unique personality or personhood” (para. 65). 

The term “fundamental personal information” used here is sure to be re-used by privacy defence counsel to deal with disputes about sensitivity. And although the Court stressed again and again that its reasoning was made for the open courts context, we need the authority. The concept of sensitivity is as confused as any aspect of privacy law. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada finds personal information to be sensitive in virtually every one of its reports. It has found home address information sensitive, for example, yet the Ontario Superior Court of Justice held that home address information doesn’t warrant common law privacy protection. Sherman Estate is going to be helpful to those of us who are striving for a clear and predictable boundary to privacy claims.

Point two – the concept of privacy is a mess

The Court has already said that privacy is “somewhat evanescent” (Dagg) and “protean” (Tessling), and has noted that scholars have criticized privacy as being a concept in “theoretical disarray” (Spencer). In Sherman Estate, the Court revisits this criticism and, for the first time, clearly applies it to limit the scope of privacy protection. It says:

Further, recognizing an important interest in privacy generally could prove to be too open‑ended and difficult to apply. Privacy is a complex and contextual concept (Dagg, at para. 67;see also B. McIsaac, K. Klein and S. Brown, The Law of Privacy in Canada (loose‑leaf), vol. 1, at pp. 1‑4;D. J. Solove, “Conceptualizing Privacy” (2002), 90 Cal. L. Rev. 1087, at p. 1090). Indeed, this Court has described the nature of limits of privacy as being in a state of “theoretical disarray” (R. v. Spencer2014 SCC 43, [2014] 2 S.C.R. 212, at para. 35). Much turns on the context in which privacy is invoked. I agree with the Toronto Star that a bald recognition of privacy as an important interest in the context of the test for discretionary limits on court openness, as the Trustees advance here, would invite considerable confusion. It would be difficult for courts to measure a serious risk to such an interest because of its multi-faceted nature.

This is another very important paragraph for privacy defence counsel. I have relied on the first chapter of Daniel Solove’s Understanding Privacy more than once in a factum as a means of inviting a conservative response to a novel privacy matter. Now we have clear Supreme Court of Canada authority on point.

Yes I am arguing against privacy protection, but it is because I deeply crave clarity. Organizations are faced all manner of novel and bold privacy claims, the merits of which are too difficult to assess. We need a clearly defined limit to what counts as a privacy interest worthy of legal protection, whatever it is. This is another reason Sherman Estate is good: the first step to healing is to admit you have a problem!

Point three – a step towards unification, and a half step back

This is why it is so disappointing that the Court keeps saying that privacy is in theoretical disarray without taking up the challenge of fixing the problem.

As I’ve explained, it repeatedly tied its reasoning to the open courts context, and although it took the novel step of relying on Charter jurisprudence to help with its delineation, the Court felt it necessary to make clear that a reasonable expectation of privacy protected by section 8 of the Charter is different.

I pause here to note that I refer to cases on s. 8 of the Charter above for the limited purpose of providing insight into types of information that are more or less personal and therefore deserving of public protection. If the impact on dignity as a result of disclosure is to be accurately measured, it is critical that the analysis differentiate between information in this way. Helpfully, one factor in determining whether an applicant’s subjective expectation of privacy is objectively reasonable in the s. 8 jurisprudence focuses on the degree to which information is private (see, e.g., R. v.Marakah2017 SCC 59, [2017] 2 S.C.R. 608, at para. 31Cole, at paras. 44‑46). But while these decisions may assist for this limited purpose, this is not to say that the remainder of the s. 8 analysis has any relevance to the application of the test for discretionary limits on court openness.

Privacy shouldn’t have a different meaning in the open courts context and the Charter context and the common law/civil context. Why should it? It’s a fundamental right is it not? Has all the talk about contextual significance caused us to be too conservative? Lazy, even? Certainly facts can be assessed in their proper context under a unified concept?

We have unified our reading of differently worded anti-discrimination statutes to provide for clear and strong law across the Country given the importance of human rights protection. I fail to see why we are so hesitant to unify our privacy law.

Sherman Estate is therefore a good decision in my eyes, but not great, and there is more work to be done.

Sherman Estate v. Donovan, 2021 SCC 25 (CanLII).

[This is a personal blog, and these are my views alone. They do not reflect the views of my firm or colleagues.]

BCCA – Open courts principle does not provide for “automatic and immediate” access to court records

On December 9th, the Court of Appeal for British Columbia rejected a media challenge that alleged that the Court’s access policy violates section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms because it precludes wholly unfettered inspection of court records. The Court held that the Charter guarantees no such right, which would be inconsistent with a court’s responsibility for supervising the handling of its records.

The policy that the applicants challenged requires those seeking access to court records in criminal appeals to fill out of a form. Based on the content of completed forms, the Registrar may refer the request to the Chief Justice, who may seek input from the parties. In practice, if parties who are consulted don’t agree that the Court should provide access, those seeking access must file a formal application for access.

The media brought its application after the Court denied administrative access to records (filed in an application for bail pending appeal) that involved the investigation of a police officer for sexual misconduct. The media argued that the policy reverses the burden of justification provided for by Dagenais/Mentuck.

Chief Justice Bauman disagreed, stating:

Unfettered public access to court records is not the promise of the open court principle. That access is subject to supervision by the court, in recognition of the need to protect social values of superordinate importance. Judges have the discretion to order restrictions on access, exercised within the boundaries set by the principles of the Charter:

There is also nothing unlawful, Chief Justice Bauman held, in requiring requesters to confront a matter of administration (which was not associated with any proven material delay) in order to relieve the parties to a proceeding from preemptively seeking a sealing order.

R. v. Moazami, 2020 BCCA 350 (CanLII).

Confidentiality order issued in the name of encouraging sexual violence reporting

On February 10th, Justice Faieta issued a confidentiality order to protect the identity of a sexual violence complainant – a non-party who was summoned to testify about a workplace harassment complaint given the relevance of her complaint to a defamation action. Justice Faieta described the “important interest” favoring the order as follows:

Without protection of her privacy interests, a person who has been sexually assaulted or sexually harassed may be unwilling to come forward. Further, the failure to afford such protection to a person alleging sexual assault or sexual harassment may deter other persons from coming forward to report sexual misconduct.

Justice Faieta also said that the order only had a deleterious effect on “the prurient interests of the few.”

Fedeli v. Brown, 2020 ONSC 994 (CanLII).a

Fed CA orders removal of witness names in administrative tribunal decision

On September 30th, the Federal Court of Appeal held that the Public Service Labour Relations and Employment Board ought not to have referred to witnesses by name in a disciplinary decision about a suspension for “inappropriate acts involving a number of young female subordinate employees.”

This was a second time the matter of the witnesses’ anonymity came before the Court.  In 2017, it had held that the Board’s decision to publish witness names was unreasonable and directed the Board to re-weigh the interests at stake.

The Board again declined to refer to witnesses by initials, seemingly put off by the employer’s pre-hearing “promise” to the witnesses that their identities would be protected from publication. What the employer said to the witnesses, the Court held, was not right inquiry. For that and other reasons, it quashed the Board’s second decision as unreasonable and (extraordinarily) substituted its own judgement.

Here are two points of significance:

  • the Court suggested that the (strict) Dagenais/Mentuck test applied by courts is the test to be applied by administrative tribunals like the Board; and
  • the Court recognized the public interest in encouraging the reporting of inappropriate sexual behavior by protecting the anonymity of witness, comparing the interest to the interest in encouraging the reporting of sexual assaults.

Canada (Attorney General) v. Philps, 2019 FCA 240 (CanLII).

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

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.

Court sends matter back to arbitrator to consider redaction request

On September 13th, the Federal Court of Appeal held that the Public Service Labour Relations and Employment Board was not functus officio and ought to have entertained an employer’s request to redact witness names.

The employer claimed it made an unopposed request to obscure the identities of several non-union witnesses during the Board’s hearing. When the Board issued a decision that included full names, the employer wrote the Board and asked for a correction. The Board disagreed that the employer had made a request during the hearing and held it was functus officio. The employer brought an application for judicial review, compounding the problem by filing an un-redacted copy of the decision on the Court’s public record.

The Court accepted affidavit evidence from the employer and held that it had, in fact, made an unopposed request during the hearing. Alternatively, the Court held that the Board had the power to amend its decision based on section 43 of the Public Service Labour Relations Act. The Court also ordered that its record be treated as confidential and that the applicant file new materials with witness names replaced by initials, stating, “So doing provides little, if any, derogation to the open courts principle as [the witnesses’s] identities are not germane to the decisions.”

This is an unfortunate example of (a) rising sensitivities regarding the inclusion of personal information in judicial and administrative decisions and (b) the need to be careful about it. This affair (which shall continue) could have been avoided if the parties had asked the Board to make a formal order during course of the hearing. The employer also ought to have brought a motion for a sealing order at the outset of its judicial review application, before filing un-redacted materials (a point that the Court made in its decision).

Hat tip to Ian Mackenzie.

Canada (Attorney General) v Philps, 2017 FCA 178 (CanLII).

Court won’t redact or take down its decision

On September 7th, the Court of Appeal for British Columbia dismissed an application to have part of its reasons redacted or to have the reasons withdrawn from the Court’s website. 

The applicant believed that part of the reasons – released in 2004 – were harmful to his reputation, a problem he said was facilitated by internet search. The Court dismissed the application because redaction would offend the principle of finality. It held that redaction alone would effectively amount to an amendment of the Court’s (substantive) conclusions. (This is a non-obvious point of principle of some significance.) The Court also relied on the open courts principle, which it affirmed. 

MacGougan v. Barraclough, 2017 BCCA 321 (CanLII).

Federal Court says open courts principle overrides Privacy Act

On June 5th the Federal Court of Appeal held that material filed in a Canadian Transportation Agency dispute resolution proceeding is accessible to the public notwithstanding the prohibition on disclosing personal information in the federal Privacy Act.

The CTA exercises, in part, a quasi-judicial dispute resolution function. In excercising this function the CTA passed rules requiring that materials filed in a proceeding be placed on the public record unless subject to a confidentiality order. The applicant argued that records filed and not subject to a confidentiality order are “publicly available” and therefore exempt from a prohibition on disclosure arising under sections seven and eight of the Privacy Act. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, an intervener, argued that information is not publicly available unless it is “obtainable from another source or available in the public domain for ongoing use by the public.”

The Court agreed with the applicant. It said:

From the time of their placement on the Public Record, such documents are held by the Agency acting as a quasi-judicial, or court-like body, and from that time they become subject to the full application of open court principle. It follows, in my view, that, once on the Public Record, such documents necessarily become Publicly Available.

Lukács v. Canada (Transport, Infrastructure and Communities), 2015 FCA 140 (CanLII).

BCCA says arbitrators have discretion to identify grievors despite PIPA

On August 12th the Court of Appeal for British Columbia held that British Columbia labour arbitrators are bound by British Columbia’s provincial private sector privacy legislation but do not need consent to collect, use or disclose grievor and witness personal information.

This was an appeal of a decision by Arbitrator Lanyon issued in October 2013. Mr. Lanyon dismissed a union claim that the Personal Information Protection Act prevents arbitrators from disclosing personal information of individuals in a final decision without their consent. Mr. Lanyon made his decision on multiple bases, perhaps because the union had put him on notice that it would appeal any unfavourable decision!

The Court of Appeal’s decision is much more simple. It held that PIPA applies to labour arbitrators when the term “organization” is read purposely. It then held that disclosure without consent is “required or authorized by law” based on a provision in the Labour Relations Code that requires arbitrators to file a copy of their awards for publication. Although this provision does not specifically require the filing of an award that includes personal information, the Court said:

It is difficult to see how a decision-maker, who is obliged to provide reasons that are subject to various levels of review, could possibly avoid disclosing personal information, as required by PIPA. The suggestion of the Union of using initials would not, in many cases, comply with the requirements of PIPA.

Arbitrators, the Court noted, have a discretion to use initials of parties or witness to protect privacy interests or “however they see fit.”

This is a matter in which the outcome reached by Mr. Lanyon and the Court of Appeal is very sensible and supportable on a policy-based analysis. One may question, however, whether the Court of Appeal’s simplistic basis for determining the matter is open to attack.

United Food & Commercial Workers Union, Local 1518 v Sunrise Poultry Processors Ltd, 2015 BCCA 354 (CanLII).

BCLRB affirms decision denying grievor anonymity

There has been some significant British Columbia litigation about whether the British Columbia Personal Information Protection Act gives a grievor a right to have his identity obscured in an arbitration award.

On May 29th the British Columbia Labour Relations Board affirmed a decision by arbitrator Stan Lanyon on the issue.

Thr Board held that PIPA does bind a labor arbitrator, but that labor arbitrators nonetheless retain a discretion in deciding whether to grant a right of anonymity based on the “authorized by law” exception to the consent rule.

The Board also affirmed Arbitrator Lanyon’s finding that the arbitration process is “not a purely private dispute resolution mechanism,” that there is therefore a public interest in open proceedings and that there is a particular public interest in publishing the names of individuals who commit employment offences.

Look for an appeal on this very principled and important issue.

Sunrise Poultry Processors Ltd v United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, Local 1518, 2014 CanLII 27506 (BC LRB).