Facing case backlog, B.C.’s information commissioner says office may need more money

Facing case backlog, B.C.’s information commissioner says office may need more money

Information and privacy commissioner calls on governments to give more information to public

Those seeking public documents from British Columbia government bodies are increasingly being told to wait – and wait again – for the information they seek.

That has led the province’s information and privacy commissioner to urge B.C.’s public bodies and governments to do better at providing public information to citizens without them having to ask. But as he calls on government to find ways to meet provincial law, commissioner Michael McEvoy is also considering whether he needs more resources to ensure his own office is dealing with cases in a timely manner.

“I think government can do a lot better job of proactively releasing information that doesn’t require people to be asking for,” McEvoy said in a recent interview with The News. Abbotsford mayor Henry Braun expressed a similar sentiment last month, suggesting that more information could be released proactively. The city, which has set money aside to digitize historic records, is on track to handle 600 Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

The province’s FOI law applies to the provincial government, municipalities like Abbotsford, regional districts, public bodies like Fraser Health and WorkSafeBC, and Crown corporations like BC Hydro.

Those bodies have increasingly come to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) to ask for more time to meet those FOI requests.

Under the provincial FOI law, governmental organizations have 30 days to comply with FOI requests. In some cases, the body has another 30 days to meet the request, but if the organization wants even more time, they must request such an extension from the OIPC.

In 2017/18, the OIPC received 1,638 time-extension requests from public bodies. This year, it’s on pace to receive about 6,000 – a nearly four-fold increase.

McEvoy noted that the law stipulates that B.C.’s FOI law requires governments and public bodies to make certain categories of records available without a request.

“I think they can all be doing a lot better at not waiting for the access requests but getting records proactively released to the public and put on their website, for example, so you can access them easily.”

In a statement to The News, the province’s Ministry of Citizens’ Services said the B.C. government’s rising number of extensions are the result of an increasing number of requests. The statement from the ministry said the rate at which requests to the provincial government are processed on time has actually increased in recent years. The statement only relates to requests to the provincial government.

The ministry said the province has “expanded the types of records available proactively and continues to look at ways to make even more records available without having to make a FOI request. We are also exploring new technologies to make responding to FOI requests more efficient and secure, and to help with large-volume requests.”

But the OIPC has also found itself unable to meet legislated timelines to resolve disputes over what information should be made public. Last year, the office dealt with 1,400 cases in which it was asked to review redactions made by a public body before records were redacted. Most cases are resolved informally, but around 90 end up before an adjudicator. Although the law states that the office has 90 days to wrap up such cases, full inquiries are taking more than a year to complete now. Only about half are dealt with in 90 days, according to McEvoy.

The News learned of the delays after requesting a review of sweeping redactions of an audit commissioned by Fraser Health that deals with cancer treatment in B.C. Although an investigator told the Provincial Health Services Authority that it was his opinion the body must not refuse to release the audit, the PHSA continues to fight the full release of the documents. That could send the case to an inquiry.

The News was asked for consent to extend the timeline. It did so only after being told that the file would be closed if no consent was granted. The News requested the audit five months ago, after writing about Carol Young, a terminal cancer patient who struggled to access treatment in Abbotsford. She died in late October.

RELATED: Provincial health body refuses to release full findings of cancer triage system audit

RELATED: Carol Young, an artist who fought for timely cancer treatment in Abbotsford, dies before first solo show

“It does take too long and it’s not fair to you as the applicant or public bodies or the organization,” McEvoy said. “There is an old expression, ‘Justice delayed is justice denied,’ and I believe that.”

The complexity of cases, and the size of requests given the use of email, has risen in recent decades and added to the time it takes to wrap up cases. “But also adding to time is a resource question,” McEvoy said.

He said his office has allocated more resources to inquiries and significantly boosted the number of adjudicators. McEvoy said he is hoping that will speed things up.

It’s still too early to say if those additions are helping, he said. If they aren’t, McEvoy said he may ask for more money from the legislative committee that sets his office’s budget.

“At the end of the day, it is the public’s information and the public has a right of access to it, subject to narrow limitations.”

Do you have something to add to this story, or something else we should report on? Email:
tolsen@abbynews.com


@ty_olsen
Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Don Devenney is a Goldstream Gazette 2021 Local Hero as Community Builder of the year. (Don Denton/Black Press Media)
West Shore volunteer’s efforts an exercise in adventurous pursuits

Don Devenney is the 2021 recipient of the Community Builder Award

The construction zone remains for now at Clover Point, but plans for a new pedestrian zone and partially closed traffic loop were approved by Victoria councillors on Thursday. (Don Descoteau/News Staff)
Victoria council compromises with partial closure of Clover Point

Option preserves parking 14 spots facing ocean, creates more pedestrian space

A wind warning is in effect for Greater Victoria Thursday afternoon. (Black Press Media file photo)
Strong winds predicted for Greater Victoria

Environment Canada issues warning for Thursday afternoon

The Gordon Head Recreation Centre stands in as the Quimper Regional Hospital on Feb. 23 for filming Maid, a 10-part Netflix series. (Greg Sutton/District of Saanich)
Netflix transforms Saanich recreation centre into hospital for filming

Facility was closed to public Feb. 23 for filming of Maid

(Black Press Media file photo)
Trees Cannabis to reignite downtown Victoria location as licensed store

The dispensary will reopen its 230 Cook St. location on Saturday

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature. (B.C. government)
B.C. reports 10 additional deaths, 395 new COVID-19 cases

The majority of new coronavirus infections were in the Fraser Health region

Anyone with information on any of these individuals is asked to call 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or visit the website victoriacrimestoppers.ca for more information.
Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of Feb. 23

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

(Black Press Media File Photo)
POLL: Are you struggling with Greater Victoria’s cost of housing?

While Victoria remains one of the most expensive cities in the country… Continue reading

Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools is preparing a rapid response team proposal for submission to the B.C. Ministry of Education. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
Nanaimo-Ladysmith school district chosen as COVID-19 rapid response team

Team to consist of SD68 and Island Health staff, according to B.C. Ministry of Education

A new survey has found that virtual visits are British Columbian’s preferred way to see the doctor amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Unsplash)
Majority of British Columbians now prefer routine virtual doctor’s visits: study

More than 82% feel virtual health options reduce wait times, 64% think they lead to better health

Captain and Maria, a pair of big and affectionate akbash dogs, must be adopted together because they are so closely bonded. (SPCA image)
Shuswap SPCA seeks forever home for inseparable Akbash dogs

A fundraiser to help medical expenses for Captain and Maria earned over 10 times its goal

The missing camper heard a GSAR helicopter, and ran from his tree well waving his arms. File photo
Man trapped on Manning mountain did nearly everything right to survive: SAR

The winter experienced camper was overwhelmed by snow conditions

Castlegar doctor Megan Taylor contracted COVID-19 in November. This photo was taken before the pandemic. Photo: Submitted
Kootenay doctor shares experience contracting COVID-19

Castlegar doctor shares her COVID experience

Ashley Paxman, 29, is in the ICU after being struck by a vehicle along Highway 97 Feb. 18, 2021. She remains in critical condition. (GoFundMe)
Okanagan woman in ICU with broken bones in face after being struck by car

She remains in serious condition following Feb. 18 incident

Most Read