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

Habitat Acquisition Trust has received provincial funding to help restore Garry oak ecosystems on southern Vancouver Island. (Photo by Jeremy da Silva)
Central Saanich park among sites for local Garry oak restoration projects

Habitat Acquisition Trust received $140,000 in funding for 12 projects

A family of ducks that lives near Saanich Municipal Hall recently welcomed 11 ducklings and took them for a swim in the koi pond outside the offices. (District of Saanich/Twitter)
Pair of ducks make Saanich Municipal Hall a nursery for 11 hatchlings

Family of ducks spent time in koi pond before heading down to Swan Lake

Architect’s rendering of the 7 Erskine Lane development, showing the view from the east and south. (VDA Architecture Ltd. image)
View Royal green-lights residential development on Erskine Lane

First of two developments near Victoria General Hospital will provide 71 housing units

Sue Hodgson returns as publisher of the Peninsula News Review starting June 1. (Courtesy Sue Hodgson)
Peninsula News Review welcomes back Sue Hodgson as publisher

Dale Naftel takes helm of Oak Bay News as publisher

Andrew Swanson was arrested Wednesday after he was wanted for an alleged choking assault and for obstructing police. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Victoria police arrest Andrew Swanson on warrants for alleged choking assault, obstruction

A member of the public spotted Swanson and called 911 before police came and made the arrest

Protesters attempt to stop clear-cutting of old-growth trees in Fairy Creek near Port Renfrew. (Will O’Connell photo)
VIDEO: Workers, activists clash at site of Vancouver Island logging operation

Forest license holders asking for independent investigation into incident

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 May 4

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

(Black Press Media file photo)
POLL: Do you plan to travel on the Victoria Day long weekend?

It’s the unofficial start to the summer season. A time of barbecues,… Continue reading

Starting Tuesday, May 11, B.C. adults born in 1981 and earlier will be able to register for a vaccine dose. (Haley Ritchie/Black Press Media)
BC adults 40+ eligible to book COVID-19 vaccinations next week

Starting Tuesday, people born in 1981 and earlier will be able to schedule their inoculation against the virus

Parks Canada and Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks dig the washed up Princess M out from sand along the south shore of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. (Nora O’Malley photo)
Rescue attempt costs man his boat off Pacific Rim National Park Reserve

Coast Guard response questioned after volunteer responder’s speedboat capsizes in heavy swells

Road sign on Highway 1 west of Hope warns drivers of COVID-19 essential travel road checks on the highways into the B.C. Interior. (Jessica Peters/Chilliwack Progress)
B.C. residents want travel checks at Alberta border, MLA says

Police road checks in place at highways out of Vancouver area

People line up for COVID-19 vaccination at a drop-in clinic at Cloverdale Recreation Centre on Wednesday, April 27, 2021. Public health officials have focused efforts on the Fraser Health region. (Aaron Hinks/Peace Arch News)
B.C. reports 1st vaccine-induced blood clot; 684 new COVID cases Thursday

Two million vaccine doses reached, hospital cases down

More than 6,000 camping reservations in British Columbia were cancelled as a result of a provincial order limiting travel between health regions. (Unsplash)
1 in 4 camping reservations cancelled in B.C. amid COVID-19 travel restrictions

More than 6,500 BC Parks campsite reservations for between April 19 and May 25 have been revoked

Most Read