Tips for using the Freedom of Information Laws
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What can be requested under BC's Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (the FOIPP Act)
Exceptions to disclosure - Reasons why your request for access to records may be denied or only partially granted under the FOIPP Act
A lot of non-personal government information is available free of charge and is waiting for you on the Internet. If you are interested in exploring what may be available there are a few key sources for such information.
For the Government of Canada there is a list of all Federal Institutions and their access to information and privacy contacts and Sources of Federal Government Information.
For the BC Government there is a list of BC Ministries/Crowns and Central Agencies and their (Contacts). You can also use an advanced search tool to search for content across the BC Government. The Personal Information Directory provides searches for summaries of Information Sharing Agreements; Personal Information Banks; Privacy Impact Assessments; Health Information Bank Ministerial Orders and Health Information Sharing Agreement Ministerial Orders. Finally, one can search the Legislative Library of BC.
For BC Local Governments, Civic Net BC provides an index to Municipalities, Regional Districts and Regional Hospital Districts.
Don't be afraid to pick up the phone and call the offices of the government bodies you think have the information you want. All public bodies have information officers who are required to help the public with their requests. Establish personal contact, start a dialogue and work with them if possible to narrowly and accurately pinpoint the information or records you are seeking. A clearly worded, narrowly focused request is likely to result in a quicker response and a smaller fee if you end up having to pay one.
The Government of Canada has a toll free line, 1-800-622-6232, to access information about the Government and to be connected to a federal institution of interest.
The BC Government has a provincial call centre called Enquiry BC that provides information on government services and will connect you to contacts in provincial government ministries, Crown corporations and public agencies. The hours of operation for Enquiry BC are 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. - Monday through Friday. If you are calling long distance and know the government number you want to be connected to, call the appropriate Enquiry BC number below and asked to be transferred to the number you want.
In Victoria call: 250-387-6121 - In Vancouver call: 604-660-2421 - Elsewhere in B.C. call: 1-800-663-7867 - Outside B.C. call: 604-660-2421
Telephone Device for the Deaf (TDD) In Vancouver call: 604-775-0303 - Elsewhere in B.C. call: 1-800-661-8773
If the information is not publicly available, determine who is most likely to have what you want
If you are not sure which government body has the information you want, try and narrow down your search to either the BC Government, a BC municipal government, an organization/business in the BC private sector, or the Government of Canada. Although this help section is mainly for people seeking information under the freedom of information and privacy laws of British Columbia, you will also find links to information about access to information and privacy for other provinces and the Government of Canada
You also need to be as clear as possible about what you are looking for. You can request government records from BC's Provincial Government, municipal governments, governments in other Provinces, and the Government of Canada. You can also request to view or get copies of your personal information from government and private-sector organizations
Don't be afraid to pick up the phone and call the government or other organization you think has the information or records you want. Find out if they keep the kind of records you want and get a dialogue going on about how you can narrowly and accurately pinpoint what you are seeking. You don't need to explain why you want the information, but consider doing so if it might help determine exactly what records you need and who might have them. You can also contact Enquiry BC (mentioned above) toll free and ask for help determining which government body may have the information you are seeking. Remember, a clearly worded, narrowly focused request is likely to result in less or no expense and a much quicker response.
- If a public body or organization is able to help you locate and describe the information or records you want, be sure to ask for them informally and directly from the person you are dealing with. If they cannot or will not provide you with the information, then consider whether you want to file a formal request (see What to expect below). If you decide you want to file a formal request, ask the person you are dealing with for the contact information of a dedicated access and privacy contact in their organization.
Focus your request
Determine what information or records you want and try to limit your request to exactly that. Carefully consider how you can narrowly and accurately describe in writing what you are seeking. This will improve your chances of getting the information you need, rather than an exorbitant fee estimate for a lot of records that may have little value to you. Don't make the mistake of thinking that by asking for everything a public body will unwittingly disclose an undetected smoking gun. Records being prepared for release are reviewed line-by-line and word-by-word by well-paid professionals and their work is reviewed by upper management and often by political and public relations staff. Chances of scoring a hit with a widely-cast net are almost zero. Keep your request simple, clear and focused.
Try to avoid clauses like "any and all records". Instead, hone in on specific examples, suggest from whom or where they may be gathered or found and provide a time period during which you think those records were gathered or created. This helps to speed up the process.
- Any and all records associated with senior Parks and Recreation staff for 2009.
- All Email records associated with the Director, Parks and Recreation for the period January 15th to 20th, 2009 If you know that the request involves a large number of records, try to state both what your request includes and what it does not include.
All records relating to the decision to build the new overpass, but not the background planning, construction or contract information will exclude extraneous information and save you time and money.
If you want material released to you in stages or in a particular order, inform the public body of your needs. For example, you might want to have materials reviewed and released to you in geographical order, or you may simply not want to wait for all of the records to be processed before some are released. In this case you can ask for a staged release - where you receive records in logical chunks.
You have rights, but be reasonable. Consider the government analyst or private sector organization receiving your request they are only human. A well-written request, helpful communication, and a non-confrontational manner on your end can only aid the processing of your request. Pestering your contact at a public body or private sector organization could jeopardize a helpful source of information.
Do not send frivolous letters or file pointless appeals; they will only delay the processing of your request.
Specify your request, address and mail, email or drop it off
When writing your request, be as factual and clear as you can. Approach it with the assumption that the person you are addressing is there to help you. You do not have to state in your request why you want the information you are requesting. However, if your request is unclear or complex, the question of why you want it may come up if you receive a phone call or email for clarification. Providing such information is strictly voluntary, but consider whether it may help the person processing your request to focus on the records of most value to you.
If you receive a letter or e-mail requesting more detailed information about your request, it is extremely valuable to phone the contact and talk to them. This will save you enormous amounts of time and will give you the chance to clarify exactly what records you are looking for. We cannot stress too much how important it is to actually speak to the person processing your request.
If you are making a request by letter or email, try to include the name of the access law under which you are making the request. You can also make a request by using the relevant form available on our website; in which case you do not need to cite the law. If you need to disclose personal or sensitive information in your request it is recommended that you do not use email as it is not a secure means of communication.
A written request will likely be handled faster if you address it to the Manager of Information and Privacy responsible for a public body or an organization in the private sector. Provincial government and crown agency contacts are listed here. Local government contacts can be found in these pages.
Ensure that your request is dated and keep an accurate record of the date you sent in the request (a photocopy is ideal). This can be important when it comes to securing your rights should your request be met with denial or an unreasonable delay.
- If you wish to fill out a form for accessing government records rather than writing a letter, use fillable forms for accessing government records. If you are submitting a request for records to a BC government ministry, Crown Corporation or agency, you may drop it off at any of that organizations offices addressed to the Manager of Information and Privacy. It will be placed in the internal house mail and delivered promptly.
What can be requested under BC's Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (the FOIPP Act)
All records in the custody or under the control of a public body are covered by the FOIPP Act, except the following types of records these records cannot be compelled by a FOI request:
a record in a court file, a record of a judge of the Court of Appeal, Supreme Court or Provincial Court, a record of a master of the Supreme Court, a record of a justice of the peace, a judicial administration record or a record relating to support services provided to the judges of those courts;
a personal note, communication or draft decision of a person who is acting in a judicial or quasi judicial capacity;
subject to subsection (3), a record that is created by or for, or is in the custody or control of, an officer of the Legislature and that relates to the exercise of that officer's functions under an Act;
a record of a question that is to be used on an examination or test;
a record containing teaching materials or research information of employees of a post-secondary educational body;
material placed in the archives of the government of British Columbia by or for a person or agency other than a public body;
material placed in the archives of a public body by or for a person or agency other than a public body;
a record relating to a prosecution if all proceedings in respect of the prosecution have not been completed;
a record of an elected official of a local public body that is not in the custody or control of the local public body.
Reasons access to records may be denied or only partially made available under the FOIPP Act
Access and privacy laws contain numerous exceptions or reasons why a public body or private organization can refuse to disclose all or part of a record. Interpreting this part of the legislation is difficult and complex and constitutes a whole body of legal study. Public bodies don't always get it right, and if they err, it will usually be to disclose less rather than more.
If you are denied access for one or more of the reasons below, familiarize yourself with the section of the legislation the public body has relied upon to withhold information. If you feel they've been a little too generous with their erasures, ask them to review their decisions.
If you still aren't satisfied with what you have been given and what has been withheld, you can ask the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for a review of the public body's decision. Starting this process is something like the opening bid in a bargaining or negotiation session. You are required to first ask the organization that provided you with a response to reconsider their position. They may or may not release a little more information. Then you ask the Commissioner's Office to intervene and they will first try to mediate a resolution and will try to bring you and the public body a little closer by encouraging a bit of give and take. If you aren't satisfied, you can demand the Commissioners Office render a decision, called an Order. In extreme cases, and depending on the outcome, you or the public body may appeal the Commissioner's Order.
It is often the case that asking the Commissioners Office to intervene will net you more information than you would otherwise receive, but bear in mind that you shouldn't use this right frivolously. The Commissioner's Office (which is notoriously understaffed and underfunded) has a huge backlog of cases and formal reviews can be costly for the government (and taxpayers).
On the other hand, public bodies will tend to withhold more information than they should in their initial response. This is due to unwritten policy stemming mainly from human nature: if in doubt about a particular piece of information, it is safer to withhold it than release it. If forced to, a public body can always release the information afterwards with impunity, but once released, it cannot be taken back. This maxim is especially true of information that is sensitive, politically charged or potentially damaging to government. Here are the legal exceptions to disclosure that a public body can cite as a reason for withholding information. Remember, just because a public body cites one of these exceptions, it doesn't necessarily mean it actually applies.
- Section 12 - Cabinet and local public body confidences, Section 13 - Policy advice or recommendations, Section 14 - Legal advice, Section 15 - Disclosure harmful to law enforcement, Section 16 - Disclosure harmful to intergovernmental relations or negotiations, Section 17 - Disclosure harmful to the financial or economic interests of a public body, Section 18 - Disclosure harmful to the conservation of heritage sites, etc., Section 19 - Disclosure harmful to individual or public safety, Section 20 - Information that will be published or released within 60 days, Section 21 - Disclosure harmful to business interests of a third party, Section 22 - Disclosure harmful to personal privacy, Section 22.1 - Disclosure of information relating to abortion services
Important information for you to know before and after you make an FOI request
Freedom of information and privacy laws in British Columbia give you the right to request access to any record in the custody or under the control of a public body, including a record containing personal information about yourself. Similar access laws apply to other Provinces, the Territories and the Government of Canada. You also have the legal right to request access to your personal information that is held by private sector organizations/businesses in Canada, through various federal and provincial laws.
Freedom of information and privacy laws are not meant to be a first line of enquiry and shouldn't be used lightly; nor are they the best research tools. These laws are expensive to administer and costs are borne ultimately by all taxpayers. So, before you make a request using FOI and privacy laws, be sure you have tried more direct, informal approaches: contact the public body or organization/business that has the information you are seeking and ask for it directly from them. If that doesn't work, then consider filing a formal request with the public body or organization.
Fees: There is no fee for submitting a request for access to records in BC and no fee may be charged by a public body for providing you with access to your own personal information. However, accessing non-personal information, referred to as general information, is a different story. If a large number of records are involved, or your request involves a lot of search and retrieval time, a public body may require that you pay a fee before providing a response. In fact, fees are often used by public bodies to either discourage requests or persuade requesters to narrow their focus.
Fee Waivers: If you receive a fee estimate from a public body, you can ask that the fee be waived, but there is no guarantee that this will happen. BC's Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act says that fees may be waived if you cannot afford them or if for any other reason it is fair to excuse payment. The Act also says fees may be waived if the information relates to a matter of public interest, such as the environment or public health or safety. However, the reality is much different than the wording suggests and it is rare for a public body to waive a fee rarer still if the information you are seeking is sensitive and the public body is reluctant to disclose it. Still, you should try if the request you are making is genuinely in the public interest as defined by the FOIPP Act. You will need to submit in writing a defensible explanation as to why you should not be charged a fee, with as much proof as possible to convince the public body that it should waive the fee. Send your request for a fee waiver to the person who sent you the fee estimate.
The criteria you will have to satisfy to justify a fee waiver may be found HERE [link to Determination of Fee Waiver Guidelines - a Microsoft Word .rtf file].
Making the case for a fee waiver in the public interest is usually only successful when done by the media or public interest groups, and more often than not, requests for a fee waiver are denied by the public body. You can request the Information and Privacy Commissioner to review a public body's decision to deny your request for a fee waiver, but you are required to first ask the organization to reconsider their decision to deny you the fee waiver. Don't omit this step as the Commissioners Office will only send you back if you do.
If you receive a fee estimate from a private sector organization/business that you think is unreasonable, you can ask the Information and Privacy Commissioner to review the estimate and render a decision. There is no right to request a fee waiver from a private sector organization/business as there is for a public body, only the right to request a review of how reasonable a fee might be.
You have a right to receive a reply to your request within 30 days of receipt of your request by the public body or private sector organization/business and a letter of acknowledgment fairly soon after they receive your request. A day is defined as a working day, meaning Monday to Friday, excluding statutory holidays which make it more like 42 45 calendar days.
If you are requesting access to your personal information you wont encounter too many problems and you'll likely get results within 30 days or so. But if you are requesting access to contentious or sensitive information, your request will attract attention from additional eyes. This is often the Public Affairs people in government bodies and in the case of the provincial government, possibly the Deputy Minster to the Premier's office. Should that be the case, expect delays often improper delays -- of up to several months. Access legislation contains a number of mechanisms that permit a public body to extend the time limit for responding to you. Studies have shown that requests for non-personal or general information unfortunately take much longer than requests for your own personal information. Requests by political parties, media and interest groups take longest. In short, if you are requesting something that may be contentious, charged or politically controversial, expect delays and be prepared for a struggle but don't give up, the law is on your side.
You have the legal right to receive the records you request unless a legal exception applies to all or part of the record (see Exceptions to disclosure). If one or more of the exceptions to disclosure apply to parts of a record, a public body may remove or "sever" those parts, but must release the remainder of the record. Severed information will appear as a blank space. If you receive a document from which information has been severed, the public body must state the reasons for severing the information, and quote the section(s) of the law it has relied upon to remove it.
If you are denied access to the records you have requested, or information has been severed from them, you have a right to request a review by the Information and Privacy Commissioner. As with fee waivers, before going to the Commissioners Office, be sure to ask the public body/organization to review their decision to deny access or sever information. If you decide to ask for a review, include both the first and second responses from the public body/organization.
Even if a public body determines it does not have the records you are requesting, or has only a portion of them, it still has a legal duty to assist you and must transfer your request to another public body that is in a better position to respond. The public body must notify you in writing that it has transferred your request, or indicate it has no records and provide other written assistance to you. If you doubt the sincerity of the public body's response, you can appeal to the Public Body and then to the Information and Privacy Commissioner. This is covered elsewhere on our website under Filing a Privacy Complaint or a Request for a Review.
CORRECTING FALSE PERSONAL INFORMATION: You have the right to ask a public body to make a correction to personal information that it has on file about you if you think some information is missing or incorrect. Be warned, this can be a very difficult process. However, for someone who suffers from the consequences of false information in a file, it is extremely important. Submit your correction request in writing to the public body and provide as much help as you can to help them locate that information.