Case Report – SCC says Privacy Commissioner can’t decide privilege claims

The Supreme Court of Canada issued its decision in Blood Tribe earlier today. In a judgement written by Mr. Justice Binnie, it unanimously held that the Privacy Commissioner of Canada does not have the power to compel production of records over which an organization claims solicitor-client privilege. In doing so, the Court affirmed the well-established principle that solicitor-client privilege cannot be abrogated by inference and made its first comments yet on the mandate granted to the PCC by the Personal Information and Protection of Documents Act.

The dispute arose when the respondent to an access to personal information complaint refused to produce records of communications that it claimed to be subject to solicitor-client privilege. In demanding the records be produced, the Commissioner relied on the investigatory powers granted by section 12. Section 12 reads as follows:

12. (1) The Commissioner shall conduct an investigation in respect of a complaint and, for that purpose, may

(a) summon and enforce the appearance of persons before the Commissioner and compel them to give oral or written evidence on oath and to produce any records and things that the Commissioner considers necessary to investigate the complaint, in the same manner and to the same extent as a superior court of record

The Supreme Court held that this provision does not give the PCC the power to compel production of records over which solicitor-client is claimed by mere inference or by necessary implication in light of the PCC’s mandate.

While the principle that solicitor-client privilege can only be abrogated by express statutory language is not new, the Court’s application of the principle in this case demonstrates its strength because (as pointed out by the Information Commissioner in support of the PCC’s appeal), “verification of the privilege is the very object of the Privacy Commissioner’s statutory ombudsperson function and not merely a preliminary step to determine the record’s use for another purpose.”

The Court was not convinced by this argument, especially given the PCC’s mandate, which it characterized as adversarial rather than independent. Though the Court acknowledged that the validity of a solicitor-client privilege claim which is raised in response to a PIPEDA right of access request is of concern to the PCC given her mandate, it said her only valid means of seeking a determination of such a claim is to engage the Federal Court as she is empowered to do under the Act.

Canada (Privacy Commissioner) v. Blood Tribe Department of Health, 2008 SCC 44.

One to watch – Blood Tribe at the SCC

The Supreme Court of Canada is scheduled to hear an appeal of Blood Tribe Department of Health v. Canada (Privacy Commissioner) on February 21, 2008.  The case will present an opportunity for the Court to comment on a principle it first articulated in 1982 in Descoteaux v. Mierzwinski – that laws authorizing interference with solicitor-client privilege must be interpreted restrictively.  Of perhaps greater interest, it will be the Court’s first opportunity to provide significant commentary on the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act.

The dispute arose when the respondent to a complaint alleging a failure to provide access to personal information refused to produce records of communications that it claimed to be subject to solicitor-client privilege.  In demanding the records be produced, the Commissioner relied on the investigatory powers granted by section 12 of PIPEDA, a broadly-worded provision which does not expressly grant the power to order the production of records over which solicitor-client privilege is claimed. 

Litigation ensued and the Federal Court held that the Commissioner had the power to order production.  It did so by applying a purposive analysis, stressing the Commissioner’s “central role in achieving the important objectives of the legislative scheme.”

The Federal Court of Appeal disagreed with the lower court’s approach, which it found to be inconsistent with the Mierzwinski strict interpretation principle and the concept of solicitor-client privilege as a substantive rule of law.  It stated:

In short, the reason express language is required to abrogate solicitor‑client privilege is because it is presumptively inviolate. The exception for solicitor‑client privilege in the PIPEDA is not what shelters privileged documents from disclosure. The law of privilege does that. The exception simply recognizes that privilege.

There are some finer points to the Federal Court of Appeal’s decision that may also catch the Supreme Court’s interest, including (1) whether the principles developed in interpreting the federal Privacy Act should be applied in interpreting PIPEDA and (2) what effect should be given to language authorizing the exercise of powers “to the same manner and to the same extent as a superior court.”

Blood Tribe is likely to remain relevant given that Parliament’s Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics made a rather moderate recommendation in its recent Statutory Review of the Personal Information and Electronic Documents Act.  Asked by the Privacy Commissioner to address the gap to her investigatory powers identified by the Federal Court of Appeal in Blood Tribe, the Standing Committee only recommended that PIPEDA be amended to expressly permit her to apply to the Federal Court for an expedited review of solicitor-client privilege claims.