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).

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).

 

IPC comments on use and disclosure of OSR in litigation

On June 15th, the Information and Privacy/Commissioner Ontario dismissed a privacy complaint that alleged a school board breached the Education Act and MFIPPA by producing a student’s OSR in response to his human rights application.

The Board produced the OSR and filed it in a brief of documents to be used at a pending Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario hearing, all pursuant to the Tribunal’s rules. The complainant objected, and in a preliminary hearing, the HRTO directed the complainant to consent or face dismissal of his application. The complainant did not consent, his application was dismissed and he subsequently filed a privacy complaint with the IPC.

The IPC held that MFIPPA prevails over the statutory privilege provision in the Education Act and that the IPC is therefore “not bound to consider section 266 of the Education Act in its deliberations.” It also held that the OSR was information “otherwise available” to the Board and therefore open to its use under the provision of MFIPPA that stipulates that MFIPPA “does not impose any limitation on the information otherwise available by law to a party to litigation.”

The IPC did recommend that, going forward, the Board refrain from unilaterally handling the OSR when its potential use and disclosure is in dispute: “… the Board should make efforts to seek direction from an administrative tribunal or court prior to disclosing the information contained within an Ontario School Record during the course of litigation.”

 York Region District School Board (Re), 2016 CanLII 37587 (ON IPC).

 

Reasonable necessity not enough to justify collection under Ontario’s public sector statutes

Section 38(2) is an important provision of Ontario’s provincial public sector privacy statue. It requires institutions to satisfy a necessity standard in collecting personal information. Ontario’s municipal public sector privacy statute contains the same provision.

On May 4th, the Divisional Court dismissed an Liquor Control Board of Ontario argument that the Information and Privacy Commissioner/Ontario had erred by applying a higher standard than “reasonable necessity” in resolving a section 38(2) issue. The Divisional Court held that the Court of Appeal for Ontario’s Cash Converters case establishes just such a standard:

The LCBO relies upon Cash Converters to support its submission that the IPC erred in not interpreting “necessary” as meaning “reasonably necessary.” However, Cash Converters does not interpret “necessary” in this way. In fact, it suggests the opposite. Arguably, something that is “helpful” to an activity could be “reasonably necessary” to that activity. Yet, the Court of Appeal makes it clear that “helpful” is not sufficient.

It’s hard to fathom a legislative intent to prohibit a practice that is, by definition “reasonable.” If the LCBO seeks and is granted leave to appeal this could lead to an important clarification from the Court of Appeal on a strict interpretation of section 38(2) that has stood for some time. The LCBO practice at issue – which involves collecting the non-sensitive information of wine club members to control against the illegal stockpiling and reselling of alcohol – is a good one for testing the line.

Liquor Control Board of Ontario v Vin De Garde Wine Club, 2025 ONSC 2537.

Review of IPC exclusion decisions now (officially) subject to reasonableness review

A friend just brought a notable FIPPA judicial review from February 24th to my attention. In it, the Divisional Court affirmed an IPC order to disclose the full names of FRO employees in response to a request for personal information.

The IPC held that the employment-related records exclusion in FIPPA did not apply to certain records containing employee names – records of services provided to the requester. The Court reviewed this on the reasonableness standard, finding that pre-Alberta Teachers case law supporting a review on the correctness standard no longer applies. On the application of the exclusion, the Court rejected an argument that the records of service provided were employment-related in the context:

To qualify for the exclusion, the record must be about labour relations or employment-related matters. The dictionary definition of the word “about” requires that the record do more than have some connection to or some relationship with a labour relations matter. “About” means “on the subject of” or “concerning”: see Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 11th ed., 2004, s.v. “about”. This means that to qualify for the exclusion the subject matter of the record must be a labour relations or employment-related matter.

Adopting the Ministry’s broad interpretation of “about” would mean that a routine operational record or portion of a record connected with the core mandate of a government institution could be excluded from the scope of the Act because such a record could potentially be connected to an employment-related concern, is touched upon in a collective agreement, or could become the subject of a grievance. This interpretation would subvert the principle of openness and public accountability that the Act is designed to foster.

This should be read to be consistent with the Divisional Court’s earlier decision that there need only be “some connection” with excluded subject matter for the exclusion to apply: see Ministry of Attorney General and Toronto Star, 2010 ONSC 991 (CanLII). Records that have some connection (i.e. a partial connection) to excluded subject matter are arguably still excluded, but the connection must be real, not speculative and not driven by the context in which a request is made.

The Court also affirmed the IPC’s finding that full name information is not exempt under the “unjustified invasion of personal privacy” exemption.

Question. Why not argue that the information at issue – full names or identifying information – is not “personal information” to which the right of access to personal information applies? The right of access to personal information applies to information and not whole records. In the absence of a special context, the identity of employee/service provider names should not constitute the requester/service recipient’s personal information.

Ministry of Community and Social Services v Doe et al (2014), 120 O.R. (3d) 451.

IPC says full balancing applies in mixed personal information cases

On September 27, 2013 the Information and Privacy Commissioner/Ontario issued a significant decision on the exemption from the right of access to personal information in section 38(b) of MFIPPA (and 49(b) of FIPPA by implication) by finding that a disclosure that is presumed to constitute an unjustified invasion of privacy for the purpose of answering a general records access request is not so presumed for the purpose of answering a request for access to one’s own personal information.

Individuals have a right of access to their own personal information that is in the custody or control of Ontario institutions subject to a number of discretionary exemptions, including an exemption that applies if “the disclosure would constitute an unjustified invasion of another individual’s personal privacy.” This exemption often arises in cases in which individuals seek access to personal information about themselves that is contained in complaints and incident reports (which record information from witnesses, complainants and others about more than one person).

The “unjustified invasion” question is informed by the mandatory exemption for unjustified invasion of personal privacy that applies to “general records” access requests. The mandatory exemption includes a provision that deems certain disclosures to be a presumed unjustified invasion. Here is the MFIPPA provision:

14(3) A disclosure of personal information is presumed to constitute an unjustified invasion of personal privacy if the personal information,

(a) relates to a medical, psychiatric or psychological history, diagnosis, condition, treatment or evaluation;

(b) was compiled and is identifiable as part of an investigation into a possible violation of law, except to the extent that disclosure is necessary to prosecute the violation or to continue the investigation;

(c) relates to eligibility for social service or welfare benefits or to the determination of benefit levels;

(d) relates to employment or educational history;

(e) was obtained on a tax return or gathered for the purpose of collecting a tax;

(f) describes an individual’s finances, income, assets, liabilities, net worth, bank balances, financial history or activities, or creditworthiness;

(g) consists of personal recommendations or evaluations, character references or personnel evaluations; or

(h) indicates the individual’s racial or ethnic origin, sexual orientation or religious or political beliefs or associations.

In Seguin Township, Adjudicator Cropley held that the application of this deeming provision does not end the analysis in a personal information request as it does in a general records request. A head should go on to consider the other relevant factors (including those listed in the Act) to determine if, on the balance, the invasion of privacy to the person other than the requester is “unjustified” in the circumstances. Adjudicator Cropley said that her interpretation consistent “legislature’s intent in creating a separate, discretionary exemption claim that makes a distinction between an individual seeking another individual’s personal information and an individual seeking his own personal information.” It invites both greater access to personal information and greater uncertainty in dealing with access to personal information requests.

Seguin (Township) (Re), 2013 CanLII 64274 (ON IPC).

The ins and outs of the e-FOI process

Here’s a presentation I delivered today in an Ontario Hospital Association webcast. I’ve been following “e-FOI” developments for a while and was happy to finally build and deliver a presentation to lend some structure to the topic. Stay tuned for more!