Before you file an access to information and privacy (“ATIP”) request, you should do preliminary research for two reasons. First, preliminary research can help you identify whether the records you are looking for have already been proactively released. Second, preliminary research may help you learn about the types of records that are available and what effective request phrasing looks like, thus improving your requests in the future.
When ATIP requests are made for general information, past successful results are typically published and accessible. Published ATIP requests can be useful as they will either be the records you’re looking for or they can show you examples of successful requests. However, ATIP requests for personal information will not be published in the same way. If you cannot find any ATIP requests published from the organization, please contact the organization’s ATIP coordinator. Overall, it is helpful to search the relevant organization’s website to see if the records have already been published.
Your access to information and privacy (“ATIP”) rights to request general information from a federal body stem from the Access to Information Act (“ATIA”).
The ATIA allows you:
Before you make a formal request using ATIP and privacy laws, be aware that you are able to informally ask the relevant federal body whether they have the information you’re looking for and if it can be released without an ATIP request. An informal request does not legally compel a response from the federal institution but it will be a much faster process than an ATIP request, if successful. On the other hand, a formal request legally compels a response as it will follow all of the ATIP request requirements under the ATIA.
Additionally, please check to make sure the information you seek is not already publicly available. The federal government’s Open Data Portal includes a searchable database of access to information summaries. The Government of Canada also has a list of all federal institutions and their access to information and privacy contacts.
In general, access to information requests can also be found through government department and agency websites, usually categorized under pages regarding “transparency” or “completed access to information requests”.
Please see the following ATIP resources created by the federal government:
These pages contain most, if not all, the information you will need to submit an ATIP request from a federal public body. Please note that many of these pages repeat and overlap in information, but it still may be useful to scan through each page.
You are not required to state why you want the information, but if your request is unclear or complex you may receive a phone call or email asking for clarification. Providing this information is voluntary but might help to focus on the records that provide the most value to you.
Fill out a federal access to Information request form or write a letter (refer to our example letters TO BE UPLODAED).
To avoid large fees, limit your request to only the information or records you need. If possible, list specific examples, suggest where or from whom they might be found, and provide a timeframe of when you think the records were created.
Clarifying which information may not be useful to you could possibly reduce wait times and costs. For example, a request for all records relating to the decision to build the new overpass, but excluding the background planning, construction, or contract information.
If you want materials reviewed and released in geographical order or records to be processed before some items are released, ask for a staged release.
If making a request by letter or email, include the name of the access law or use the ATIA form. If you need to provide highly personal or sensitive information, refrain from using email, if possible.
Date your request and keep a copy of it with a record of the date you sent it. Keep detailed records of your communications with the department and make copies of any correspondence you receive. This is an important step in securing your rights should your request be met with denial or an unreasonable delay.
If you receive a letter or email asking for more detailed information about your request, call the contact to clarify what you’re looking for.
It is crucial for an applicant to keep track of ALL correspondence, deadlines, and follow-ups. Organizations must adhere to the rules set out in the applicable legislation and you have the right to keep them accountable. Similarly, you may challenge public bodies in your correspondence such as requests for clarification, extensions, and fee assessments.
If either you or the organization requests modifications to the release, do not rush these decisions. Always collaborate, ask questions, and seek advice not only with the organization you are requesting from but others as well.
If there is a delay or an extension to the records, you have the right to ask for an interim release of records that have already been processed.
Section 7 of the ATIA notes that, unless there is an exception, the head of the government body must reply within 30 days from the time of receiving your request. The response from the government body can include the records you requested within the 30-business day period, a refusal to provide the records (either partly or entirely) with an explanation, request clarification on what you’re looking for, or provide you with an official notice they need more time.
Section 9 of the ATIA can permit extensions for public bodies in some cases. The public body can request an additional 30 business days if your request does not include enough detail, includes many records, involves a lengthy or complex search, or if more time is needed to consult a third party or another public body. If a public body extends their response time, they must provide a reason, an expected response time, and advise that you can object to the Office of the Information Commissioner.
Typically requests for non-personal or general information take longer than requests for your own personal information, while requests by political parties, media, and interest groups take the longest. In addition, requesting access to controversial or sensitive information may warrant an extension beyond the 30-day period.
If a public body does not respond within 30 business days, it is considered a “deemed refusal” and you are eligible to file a complaint to the Office of the Information Commissioner as per section 10(3) of the ATIA.
Under section 10 of the ATIA, if you are denied access to your requested records or information has been removed from the records, you have the right to request a review by the Office of the Information Commissioner within 30 days of receipt of the public body’s written response. Before contacting the Office of the Information Commissioner, ask the public body to review their decision to deny access or delete information.
There are a number of valid reasons that a public body or organization may refuse to release the information you seek. Public bodies tend to withhold more information than they should in their initial response, especially with content that is sensitive, politically charged, or potentially damaging to the government. However, you can take further action if you feel that the information you requested should have been released.
If one or more exceptions under the exemptions section of the ATIA or the exclusions section of the ATIA apply to your request, a public body may legally remove or redact information contained in a records release.
If you are denied access, you should be made aware of the relevant legislative sections under which disclosure to you was refused. Make sure to first read the section of legislation cited. If you have read the relevant section of the applicable act and feel that a public body or organization is in the wrong, then you should ask the body directly to review their decision.
Please refer to our example letter as a template (TO BE UPLOADED).
Listed below are the exceptions and exemptions to disclosure sections set out in the ATIA.
There may be fees associated with your access to information request for non-personal information.
Section 11(1) of the ATIA sets out that a federal government institution may not charge a freedom of information application fee that exceeds $25. Currently, there is a $5 application fee prescribed to apply to these requests.
For example, if there are many records in your request for non-personal information, or if your request involves a lot of copying, computer processing, or search and preparation time, the public body may ask you to pay a fee before they provide you with a response. Note that you should not be charged for any time spent deleting information from your requested records. You may be able to ask to view the records in a reading room if it is possible instead of having them all photocopied, which may save costs.
There are opportunities to waive the fees levied on general freedom of information requests. At the federal level, section 11(2) of the ATIA gives government institutions the ability to waive and refund application fees, in whole or in part.
Typically, fee waivers regarding public interest are more successful when done by the media or public interest groups. Therefore, an alternative method would be to involve either of these groups at some point in the process.
As per section 31 of the ATIA, please file a complaint about the response time, extension, refusal, fee, or any other issue to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada within 60 days of receiving notice of grounds of a complaint.
For more information about complaints, please visit our FIPAs complaint and review page.
These pages were last updated and reviewed in August of 2022.
The information on these pages only contains general information and guidance; none of the information constitutes legal advice. If you have a specific issue that you believe is a legal problem, the best practice is to consult a lawyer.
The information is non-partisan, dynamic and ever changing. It is the result of FIPA’s research and public education programs.
If you note something that needs to be added, corrected, or removed, please contact us by email: fipa AT fipa.bc.ca.