Bring all branches of government under information law, watchdog urges

A federal watchdog says the Access to Information Act should be extended to all branches of government — including the offices that support Parliament and the courts.

OTTAWA — A federal watchdog says the Access to Information Act should be extended to all branches of government — including the offices that support Parliament and the courts.

In a report on what she calls a “long overdue” modernization of the law, information commissioner Suzanne Legault proposes tighter timelines in the processing of access requests and changes to ensure exceptions in the law protect only what is strictly necessary.

The report tabled Tuesday also advocates strengthening oversight of the Access to Information regime and giving the commissioner the power to order agencies to process requests within a given time.

“The commissioner’s ability to issue binding orders would instill in the appeals process more discipline and more predictability,” Legault said.

Another recommendation would require government to ensure that major decisions are documented. Legault said that doesn’t mean every phone call or email must be preserved, but important actions must have a record trail.

In all, she offered 85 recommendations for improvements.

“Clearly, in my view, there is a need for change,” she told a news conference.

A coalition of 11 rights groups, including the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian Association of Journalists and PEN Canada issued a joint statement urging the government to overhaul the access law, using Legault’s recommendations as a template.

“Without an effective system to ensure adequate access to information and to guarantee government transparency, our democratic system is seriously undermined,” their letter said.

The access law, which took force on July 1, 1983, allows people who pay $5 to ask federal agencies for records ranging from audits and expense reports to internal emails and briefing notes.

Agencies must answer requests within 30 days or provide a good reason why an extension is necessary.

Legault says there has been a steady erosion of access rights in Canada over the last 30 years.

As a result, she says, the access law has become a shield against transparency and has encouraged a culture of delay.

“Having a modern access to information law will facilitate the creation of a government culture that is open by default,” she said.

Many users of the law complain about lengthy delays in processing requests and blacked-out passages in the records that are eventually released. In addition, dozens of agencies with federal ties fall outside the access act.

Despite bold promises of reform in the 2006 election campaign, the Conservative government has shown little interest in reforming the law ushered in by Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals.

The reluctance to do anything more than tinker is consistent with the stand-pat approach of the Mulroney and Chretien administrations.

Legault recommends extending the law to all institutions that perform a public function or that are controlled or funded — in whole or in part — by the government.

She says the offices of federal ministers, including the prime minister, should be covered, along with institutions that support Parliament and the courts.

In order to prevent delays, she recommends limiting time extensions to what is truly necessary, to a maximum of 60 days. Any extensions longer than 60 days would require the permission of the information commissioner.

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