26 January 2009

Freedom from Information: Memorial University joins the government secrecy cult

Two years later after first receiving an access to information request, Memorial University and its lawyers are still mounting arguments to justify keeping information from an applicant for access, even though the arguments they make are contradicted by the very legislation they cite.

It’s like the Executive Council’s attempts to hide public opinion polls even though the polls were clearly earmarked for disclosure in the law.

You can read the full account in the most recent decision of the information commissioner. The commissioner was clearly attempting to persevere in the face of absurdity and does a fairly good, if lengthy, job of demolishing the ludicrous position advanced by the university’s lawyers.

What’s noteworthy in this case is the extreme length to which Memorial University went to deny access.

In some instances, Memorial University and its lawyers attempted to reinvent the plain English meaning of the province’s access to information law.  If taken to its logical conclusion in one portion of its argument, Memorial University would withhold information on an applicant from the applicant himself or herself on the grounds that it was personal information and could not be disclosed.

In doing so, Memorial’s lawyers constructed an argument based on case law from another province  where the legislation does not provide that…wait for it…the privacy provisions don’t apply when the information is about the applicant.  A section of the legislation designed specifically to avoid absurdity was turned – by Memorial’s desire to hide information – into the very absurdity itself.

Memorial has also redacted Dr. Panjabi’s [the applicant] name in several places. Memorial argues that the right of an individual to his or her own personal information is not absolute where the release of information would reveal the personal information of another individual. However, there are two separate provisions (one being section 30(2)(a) and the other being section 3) in the ATIPPA that clearly provide an individual the right to access his or her own personal information. While there may conceivably be circumstances where one’s personal information may reveal information which must be protected under another exception, I believe these circumstances are not present in the case at hand.While the right of an individual to his or her own personal information may not be absolute, given the stated purpose of the ATIPPA, it will only be in exceptional circumstances where this right will be restricted. Thus, it is clear to me that in relation to the Katz Report, Dr. Panjabi is entitled to see all instances where her name appears, unless there are clear reasons why it must be withheld under an exception in the ATIPPA.

Further, Memorial has also redacted the names of administrators, professors and employees of Memorial. Section 30(2)(f) states that the prohibition of disclosure of personal information does not apply where “the information is about a third party’s position, functions or remuneration as an officer, employee or member of a public body or as a member of a minister’s staff.” Therefore it is clear that to the extent that these people are named in connection with their position and functions as employees of Memorial, section 30(1) is not applicable and they should be released. For example, where the names appear in the context of actions undertaken by these employees in the normal course of their duties, they should be released.

In another glaring instance, the university refused to explain the basis for claiming solicitor client privilege for a redaction which did not involve – on the face of it according to the decision report – the university’s legal counsel.( paragraph 59)

I note here that in April of 2008 an official with this Office sought clarification on this issue. In an e-mail dated 25 April 2008, Memorial’s designated representative on this file was asked to clarify Memorial’s use of section 21(b). There was no response to this e-mail. In a letter dated 5 May 2008 to this same representative, the official with this Office again referred to the April e-mail. Again, no clarification was provided by Memorial. I note as well that in its submission the only reference that Memorial made to section 21 was in relation to its response to Dr. Panjabi’s initial request: “Some information was redacted pursuant to s. 21, on the basis that the exemption for solicitor client privilege was engaged.” Memorial provided no reference to, nor any evidence in support of, its use of section 21(b). As such, Memorial has failed to meet its burden of proof as mandated by section 64 of the ATIPPA. As I said in my Report A-2008-012, “…if the head of a public body cannot satisfy the Commissioner (or the Court, on an appeal) that its decision is the right one, then that decision will not be upheld. It is therefore critical to the proper operation of the Act that a public body put sufficient effort into articulating the reasons for its decisions.” Based on the above, it is obvious that Memorial did not put sufficient effort into justifying its use of section 21(b).

The claim is one thing; the repeated refusal to respond to the information commissioner’s request for explanation is incomprehensible. 

Well, incomprehensible or arrogant;  take your pick.

The secrecy virus has now infected the university.