FOI reconsideration order highlights important timing issue for Ontario institutions

On May 14th, the IPC/Ontario dismissed a request for reconsideration based on an asserted change of circumstances, a somewhat common happening given the lengthy period of time it now takes to process an FOI appeal.

The IPC had earlier affirmed a decision to deny access to certain information about the OPP’s use of cell site simulators on the basis that the information could reasonably be expected to “reveal investigative techniques and procedures currently in use in law enforcement.” After the IPC made this appeal decision, the requester learned that the OPP had switched to a new model of simulator, apparently after she made her request and before the IPC made its decision. The requester asked for reconsideration so she did not have to start again (by filing a new request and potentially re-arguing an appeal). The requester argued the Ministry’s exemption claim could not stand in light of the “new evidence.”

Assistant-Commissioner Liang declined the reconsideration request, but only on the basis that the newly proffered evidence would not have led her to make a different decision in any event. Assistant-Commissioner Liang noted that the Ministry had not deliberately withheld key evidence, which the IPC has treated as a basis for reconsideration. She did not comment on whether the Ministry ought to have brought forward the change in circumstances or whether its failure to do so might warrant reconsideration.

Appeal hearings are about the propriety of an access decision that is made at a point in time, though can invite respondent institutions to make representations about prospective harms. It goes without saying that institutions should not misrepresent the state of affairs in existence at the time they file their materials with the IPC. And if they have made accurate representations and the circumstances later change, there should be no duty to bring those circumstances to the attention of the IPC and no consequence for failing to do so. This would be a very heavy and impractical burden to bear, and would do harm to the finality owed to respondents. Requesters can and should be made to file new requests that can be the subject of fresh consideration and new access decisions.

Ontario (Solicitor General) (Re), 2020 CanLII 34928 (ON IPC).

Ont CA quashes decision to close police board meeting for failure to consider the Charter

On December 27th, the Court of Appeal for Ontario issued a significant decision about the openness of meetings conducted by the governors of public bodies.

The matter involved a decision to go in camera made by a delegate of the Thunder Bay Police Service so it could deal with a police disciplinary matter – to be precise, a decision to extend the time limit for serving a notice of disciplinary hearing on several police officers for their suspect handling of an indigenous man’s death. The delegate applied the statutory test for closing a meeting as set out in section 35(4) of the Police Services Act. He rejected an argument that the more strict Dagenais/Mentuck test applied, reasoning that he was not charged with conducting a judicial or quasi-judicial proceeding.

The Court of Appeal agreed that Dagenais/Mentuck did not apply. It nonetheless held that the delegate erred by not accounting for section 2(b) of the Charter, which it had recently held governs access to police board meetings in a case called Lagenfeld. Justice Sharpe said:

In my view, that statutory test and not the Dagenais/Mentuck test governed the exercise of his discretion. However, the s. 2(b) right recognized in Langenfeld has a direct bearing on the exercise of that discretion. Through no fault of his own, the decision maker did not consider Langenfeld. The “principle that proceedings be open to the public”, recognized by s. 35(4), is considerably fortified by the s. 2(b) Charter right recognized by Langenfeld in relation to police services board meetings.

Doré, at para. 56, explains that the administrative decision maker is “to ask how the Charter value at issue will best be protected in view of the statutory objectives” and that the core of this “proportionality exercise” will require the decision maker “to balance the severity of the interference of the Charter protection with the statutory objectives.” As Doré explains, at para. 57, this proportionality exercise “calls for integrating the spirit of [the Charter’s s. 1 reasonable limits scrutiny] into judicial review”.

The Court remitted the matter to the delegate for reconsideration, stressing various contextual factors to weigh in the balance.

The overlay of the Charter on top of statutory criteria for closing a meeting is significant. Also significantly, the Court read the Police Services Act to empower the Board to make confidentiality orders incidental to a decision about whether to close a meeting in order to achieve proportionality – a reading it said flowed from the ability to close a meeting “in part.”

The Court creates a new (and ambiguous) requirement for closing meetings that likely applies to a wide number of Ontario public bodies.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation v. Ferrier, 2019 ONCA 1025.

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).

BC arbitrator admits surveillance that captures “sexual relations” in the office

Vernon Professional Firefighters’ Association I.A.F.F. LOCAL 1517 v Corporation of the City of Vernon is a well argued video surveillance case in which Arbitrator Dorsey held that a fire service properly employed video surveillance in response to a suspicion that documents had been taken from a filing cabinet in the (interim) Chief’s office. The surveillance captured two employees having “sexual relations,” an act for which they were terminated.

The Association’s theory was the decision to employ surveillance was a product of “paranoia and distrust” arising out of bad labour relations. The Employer argued the bad labour relations in its favour, ultimately convincing Mr. Dorsey that protecting its information was one concern, but determining who it believed had accessed the information without authorization was an equally legitimate objective in the context. It’s a decision that turns on its facts, though there are some other notable findings. Namely, Mr. Dorsey found that:

  • the installation of surveillance in this context was an  “indirect collection” of personal information under British Columbia’s public sector privacy legislation (para 79);
  • the standard for employing surveillance under public sector privacy legislation and a collective agreement ought to be the same (para 239);
  • having a meeting with staff about the the terminations was a legitimate means of addressing rumors and speculation about the terminations and did not invite a further breach of privacy as alleged (para 93).

Arbitrator Dorsey does suggest, problematically in my view, that surveillance evidence ought to be excluded if collected via “an unjustified employer invasion of employees’ privacy rights.” Like many arbitrators, Arbitrator Dorsey frames the power to exclude evidence as discretionary but links the exclusion analysis to one factor above all others – justification. If the exclusion analysis is to be undertaken reasonably, it must encompass “all relevant factors,” including the impact of any exclusion decision on the administration of (administrative) justice and ongoing labour relations.

Vernon Professional Firefighters’ Association I.A.F.F. LOCAL 1517 v Corporation of the City of Vernon, 2018 CanLII 111669 (BC LA).

Transparency, open courts and administrative tribunals: implications of Toronto Star v AG Ontario

Here’s some commentary I submitted in support of my panel appearance on Wednesday at the above-named OBA conference.

It appears there are not too many fans of the Toronto Star decision among administrative tribunal practitioners, though the tribunals themselves seem to be more ambivalent. I’m among those who don’t like the policy implications of Toronto Star. For insight please read my commentary.

On Wednesday I spoke about the practical impact of practicing under truly presumptive, court-like openness in which no adjudicative decision (with due process rights) stands between a requester and a client’s filings. In short, it will invite the application of a new analysis prior to making any filing. What in here is confidential? Can I compromise – making my client’s case without it? At what cost? Is it better to seek a confidentiality order of some sort? At what cost? Does the media require notice of my motion? At what cost? Did I mention cost?

I encouraged tribunal staff in attendance to think about how critical a concern privacy has become and how individuals expect and are owed, at a minimum, due process. In my view requiring applications for access (made on notice) is a model for access that’s more consistent with the object of administrative justice – specialized, low cost, accessible justice.

OCA says Children’s Lawyer records not under MAG’s custody or control

On June 18th the Court of Appeal for Ontario held that the Ministry of the Attorney General is not in custody or control of records in a Children’s Lawyer litigation file even though the Children’s Lawyer, for administrative purposes, is part of MAG. The finding turns on the Children’s Lawyer’s independence and the privacy interests of the children it represents. These kind of contextual factors are important to the custody or control analysis. As stated by the Court, “an organization’s administrative structure is not determinative of custody or control for purposes of FIPPA.”

This decision is consistent with other law that suggests records within an institution are not always in custody or control of an institution – e.g., certain faculty records and personal e-mails. Custody or control is therefore no simple concept to administer and is prone to dispute. At least for now IPC decisions will be subject to judicial review on the correctness standard, another (surprising) finding the Court of Appeal made in rendering its decision.

Ontario (Children’s Lawyer) v. Ontario (Information and Privacy Commissioner), 2018 ONCA 559 (CanLII).

 

Sask CA says Commissioner’s request for privileged communications unnecessary

On May 16th the Court of Appeal for Saskatchewan held that the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, Saskatchewan should not have required the University of Saskatchewan to produce communications that it claimed were subject to solicitor-client privilege.

The Commissioner began by inviting the University to provide evidence that supported its privilege claim. The University filed an affidavit from a non-lawyer stating that legal counsel had advised that “some” of the withheld documents are subject to solicitor-client privilege. It did not file an index of records.

This led the Commissioner to immediately request the records. Although the Commissioner had asked the University for a index of records, it did not ask again – an omission that the Court held to breach the principle that demands an adjudicator only review solicitor-client communications when absolutely necessary to assess a privilege claim.

This fact-specific decision illustrates how strictly the absolute necessity principle will be enforced. The Court also spoke about what privilege claimants ought to be required to present in support of their claims. In doing so, it suggested that an index that identifies records will ordinarily provide an adequate basis for assessing a privilege claim in the absence of any evidence suggesting a claim is “ill founded”.

University of Saskatchewan v Saskatchewan (Information privacy Commissioner), 2018 SKCA 34.

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.

Div Ct. quashes IPC decision for failure to identify PI under consideration

On December 18th, the Divisional Court quashed an IPC/Ontario order that affirmed a municipal institution’s decision to apply the public interest override in disclosing an internal investigation report. The Court held that the IPC erred by not identifying the personal information under consideration in its reasons:

[67]           The Commissioner is essentially asking this court to undertake the detailed analysis of the information in the Report described above, decide what portions of the Report fall within the s. 14 personal information exemption, and then assess the reasonableness of the Commissioner’s application of the s. 16 test based on that conclusion.  That is not the role of this court.  That complex analysis goes beyond supplementing the reasons.   It amounts to asking this court to review the reasonableness of the Commissioner’s decision based on our own assessment of what was exempted under s. 14 rather than based on what the Commissioner decided was exempted.

[68]           Given the acknowledged need to disclose only that portion of the exempted information that meets the s. 16 “clearly outweighs” balancing test, each piece of personal information that is exempted under s. 14 must form part of the analysis that the section requires.  In this case, we do not know what the Commissioner was weighing as against the public interest.  This is not a matter of considering what reasons could be offered in support of the decision; it is a matter of not knowing what his decision was on that complex issue, which is prerequisite to the application of s. 16.  This is especially important in regard to the application of s.16 because the public interest override, which is rarely used, can have a major impact on individuals whose personal information would normally be protected by a statutory exemption.

Barker v. Ontario (Information and Privacy Commissioner), 2017 ONSC 7564 (CanLII).

Tribunal errs by ordering disclosure without redaction – right to redaction?

On November 28th the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal held that the Nova Scotia Workers’ Compensation Appeals Tribunal erred by ordering the disclosure of a worker’s entire file without redaction.

The matter was about a workplace safety insurance claim, and particularly whether a worker’s condition was caused by his work. The Tribunal made the order in response to an employer’s objection to various redactions made to a set of records in the possession of the Workers Compensation Board. Although the employer argued the redacted information was relevant, the Tribunal ordered the unredacted file to be produced because it lacked the resources to vet for relevance, because fairness and the “ebb and flow” of a hearing supported full disclosure and because of the difficulty in making relevance determinations.

Despite the obvious appearance of laziness, the Tribunal framed its decision as rooted in procedural fairness. In response, the Court said: “…there is no principle of procedural fairness… that a litigant who requests disclosure is entitled to see every document it requests, regardless of relevance and without a relevance ruling by an impartial arbiter.”

Implicit in this statement is a concern for the worker’s privacy interest. The Tribunal had recognized this interest in a policy manual that it disregarded in making its order, though there are aspects of the Court’s reasoning that suggest a more broadly based right to redaction.

The Court gave this guidance on how to vet for relevance:

The person who vets for relevance must keep in mind that material should be disclosed for its connection to the “proposition[s] being advanced” by the parties, to borrow Justice Rothstein’s phrase, and not merely to justify an anticipated conclusion on the merits of those propositions. The vetting official may not be able to foretell precisely how the evidence will be martialed. So the ambit of disclosure should allow the parties some elbow room to strategize for the engagement.

Baker v. Nova Scotia (Workers’ Compensation Appeals Tribunal), 2017 NSCA 83.