February 3, 2010
Broken promises, illegally slow delays and exorbitant six-figure fees were just a few of the problems ELC student Morgan Blakley pointed out to the Special Committee to Review the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act at a Victoria public hearing on February 3, 2010. Referring to the 36-page report he prepared for the Dogwood Initiative, Blakley stressed to the Legislative Committee that while access to government records is essential for a healthy democracy, the Act is failing those who need it most. “If only rich and powerful groups in society can access government information,” he notes in the report, “then how are non-profit organizations and the majority of people supposed to participate meaningfully in our democratic governance?” Where one of the Acts key purposes is to make public bodies more accountable to public, Blakley provides data in his report to indicate how governments have been reluctant to pass over their information. When they do hand over material, it is often after a great delay or with much of the content blacked out. In a series of examples ranging from fees of $4,000 to almost $174,000, Blakley noted it also can come with a hefty price tag, even in instances where there would seem to be a public interest case to be made. Almost half of the FOI requests made in 2008 by public interest groups, the media and political parties–groups most critical for holding government accountable–were illegally slow. Its all enough to make people not bother. In fact, data in the report indicate a number of frustrated citizens have indeed stopped trying to bang their heads against the FOI stonewall. From 1995 to 2007, rates of FOI requests have declined almost 57 per cent. Blakley makes a number of recommendations to the committee and hopes government will act to strengthen Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act and fulfill the Acts true intention of giving the public a right to access government records in a reasonable amount of time and with a fair fee structure that protects the public interest.
Read the submission here
ELC clinic student Morgan Blakley “There are two linked promises captured in sections 2 and 6 of the Act. They promise not only an open and accountable government, but a government that in good faith desires to be open and accountable. These promises have not been honoured. The Act has been weakened by broad interpretations of access restricting clauses and narrow interpretations of the duty to assist and the idea of the public interest. Public bodies have consistently failed to deliver timely access to documents; on average, illegally slow 29% of the time. Fee estimates have stopped citizens groups from accessing information or pursuing important matters. In one case, fee estimates were apparently used to retaliate against a group for exercising its right to appeal a fee waiver decision. The combination of these and other factors have led to a significant decline in use of the Act and skepticism as to the Act’s effectiveness as an accountability tool.”