Step 3: Plan your request strategy
When to use FOI law
Freedom of information and privacy laws in British Columbia give you the right to request access 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.
Freedom of information and privacy laws are not meant to be a first line of enquiry and shouldn’t be used lightly. 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.
How to focus and word your request
You can request records by filling out an Access to Information request form (federal), or a Freedom of Information request form (provincial), or simply by writing a letter (see our model letters for provincial or federal requests).
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.
Flagging related information that you know will not be useful to you is also helpful, for example requesting all records relating to the decision to build the new overpass, but not the background planning, construction or contract information. This 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.
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.
Do not send frivolous letters or file pointless appeals; they will only delay the processing of your request.
Submitting 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, in which case you do not need to cite the law (ATIA form or FOIPPA form). 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. If you are not sure to which department you should send your FOIPPA request, you can email it to the BC Government at FOI.Requests@gov.bc.ca, or mail your request to this address:
Freedom of Information Request
PO Box 9569
Stn Prov Govt
Victoria, BC, V8W 9K1
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.
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 these organizations’ offices, addressed to the Manager of Information and Privacy. It will be placed in the internal house mail and delivered promptly.
Ensure that your request is dated and keep an accurate record of the date you sent in the request (a photocopy is ideal). Keep detailed records of all of your communications with the department. Make copies of all of the related correspondence you receive. This can be important when it comes to securing your rights should your request be met with denial or an unreasonable delay.
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.
You have a right to receive a reply to your request within 30 days of receipt of your request by the public body and a letter of acknowledgment fairly soon after they receive your request. Under the FOIPP Act a day is defined as a working day, meaning Monday to Friday, excluding statutory holidays, which makes it more like 42-45 calendar days.
If you are requesting access to contentious or sensitive information, your request will attract attention from additional eyes. These are often the Public Affairs people in government bodies and maybe others. 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.
The public body has 30 days to respond, which means that, within this period, they must either provide the records you requested, refuse to provide them in whole or in part, request clarification from you on what you are seeking, or notify you officially that they need more time to fulfil the request. Failure to respond within 30 days is a “deemed refusal” in law (is legally considered to be a refusal) and you may complain to the Information and Privacy Commissioner.
The public body can request an extension of a further 30 days to gather and release the information you have requested if the requester has not provided enough detail to identify the records, or a large number of records is requested, or a lengthy or complex search is required to locate the information, or more time is needed to consult with a third party or another public body. If a public body extends their response time, they must tell you the reason for the extension, when you can expect a response, and that you may contest the extension to the Information and Privacy Commissioner.
If the public body requests a second extension (beyond the 60 days), you are under no obligation to agree to this. If you decline, the public body must go to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner and present their case for an extension. The Commissioner may deny the extension, or grant a further 30 days if the public body can make its case.
Excessive delay in responding to requests is common and we strongly advise requesters not to let a public body draw the process out indefinitely. Extensions beyond 60 days should not be tolerated, but should be made the subject of a complaint to the Information Commissioner.