A Citizen’s Guide to FOI

May 10, 2005

One of the biggest obstacles that environmental groups run into when they are advancing a cause is difficulty in obtaining government documents. Government documents are often essential to determining what kind of environmental interests are at stake and identifying whether government or others have acted properly. They can provide information on sources of pollution, on land developments, forestry licences, etc.

BC has Freedom of Information legislation, but citizens often face delays in obtaining documents, omission of important documents, obstructionism from government officials, or extremely high fees for obtaining the documents. These problems often stop citizens from taking action at all.Countless potential environmental law cases and citizen actions on issues are thwarted because of an inability to get relevant information from government.

A Citizen’s Guide to Freedom of Information is designed to assist citizens dealing with FOI issues. It is important that environmental groups understand the FOI process and are able to conduct an FOI request quickly and efficiently ? and know where to go to get help when they are stymied.

ELC students, under the direction of Professor Calvin Sandborn and Randy Christensen of Sierra Legal Defence Fund, and working with such experts as Murray Rankin, Russ Francis and the currentCommissioner of Information and Privacy, have prepared the manuscript for A Citizen’s Guide to Freedom of Information.

It discusses things like:

  • Important provisions of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
  • How to create an FOI application (step by step, with references to the relevant portions of the Act); how to phrase your request, what information to gather before you make a request, etc.
  • What information you CAN ask for.
  • What information you CANNOT ask for.
  • What information is easier to get? What information is more difficult to get?
  • What should be included in an application to ensure it is processed quickly and efficiently?
  • What tips do FOI experts suggest, to facilitate a citizen’s chance of getting what they want?
  • How to get information outside the FOI process: visiting the Ministry, making informal phone calls beforehand.
  • Examples of successful FOI requests (giving people tangible examples of what information can be obtained.
  • How to ask for a fee waiver (discussing the exceptions provided in the Act for people acting in the public interest, and the criteria used to decide whether fees will be waived).
  • The mediation and review process: what to do when your FOI request or fee waiver request is denied.

Meghan Neathway and other law students have collaborated on cartoons for the book, that make the book more accessible to citizens.

The book is available for free to environmental groups.