Teresa Scassa - Blog

Friday, 16 June 2017 07:12

Ontario court weighs in on relationship between access to information and freedom of expression

Written by  Teresa Scassa
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A recent court decision (Assn. for Reformed Political Action Canada v. Ontario) raises some interesting questions about the relationship between the Charter right to freedom of expression and access to information rights.

On June 9, 2017, Justice Labrosse of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruled that a statutory exemption to Ontario’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) violated s. 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and could not be justified under s. 1. He issued a suspended declaration of invalidity, giving the province 12 months to repair the offending legislation.

Like other access to information regimes in Canada, Ontario’s FIPPA sets a default rule that citizens have a right of access to information in the hands of government and its agencies and departments. This default rule is subject to a number of exceptions that allow government institutions to refuse to disclose information that would, among other things, violate solicitor client privilege, reveal third party confidential commercial information, or adversely impact privacy rights. When a government institution refuses to release all or some of the requested information on one of these statutory grounds, the requesting party can complain to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC), which is authorized to resolve such disputes. That, in a nutshell, is the regime established under FIPPA.

In this case, the applicants challenged a provision of FIPPA that was added to the statute in 2012. Section 65(5.7) provides that “This Act does not apply to records relating to the provision of abortion services.” The Applicants argued that this exception violated their right to freedom of expression under s. 2(b) of the Charter by limiting their right of access to information. In a 2010 decision, the Supreme Court of Canada held that there was no constitutional right of access to information; rather, access was a “derivative” right related to the freedom of expression. A denial of access to information could violate the freedom of expression where access “is a necessary precondition of meaningful expression on the functioning of government.” (at para 30) Justice Labrosse’s decision therefore turns on a conclusion that the denial of access to the statistical data at issue in this case prevents “meaningful expression on the functioning of government.” In this case, Justice Labrosse characterizes the information currently available as “less than 50% of some of the statistical information on a matter of important public interest.”(at para 6).

To be clear, the effect of s. 65(5.7) is not to prohibit the disclosure of information relating to the provision of abortion services. Rather, it simply removes decisions about the disclosure of such information from the statutory scheme. The Ontario government argued that freedom of expression rights were not affected by s. 65(5.7) because hospitals and/or the government could still release such information outside of the statutory scheme. Indeed, the government of Ontario had disclosed statistical information about abortion services to the applicant, and had even argued that because this information had been provided, the application was moot.

Prior to 2012, requests for data relating to the provision of abortion services could be made to government departments or agencies that were in possession of such data. For example, the Ministry of Health would have data about the number of abortions billed to OHIP, and those data could be sought through an access to information request. In responding to requests, the department or agency would ensure that the release of data was not subject to any of the exceptions in the legislation. Any disputes would be dealt with by the OIPC. In 2012, FIPPA was amended so as to include hospitals under the legislative scheme. This meant that the public would be able to make freedom of information requests to hospitals for data about their services. It was at this time that the legislation was amended to add s. 65(5.7). Justice Labrosse noted that the government’s justification for the addition of this exception was “to address the concern that disclosure of records relating to the provision of abortion services could pose risks to the safety and security of [hospital] patients, health care providers and other staff.” (at para 59). He characterized this as a pressing and substantial objective. He expressed skepticism, however, about the government’s stated secondary objective which was to “allow hospitals to decide if they wish to voluntarily disclose records relating to the provision of abortion services.” (at para 59). He noted that there was no policy framework put in place for such disclosures, and that no voluntary disclosures had ever been made.

Justice Labrosse essentially found that the exemption of the application of FIPPA to information about abortion services, which, as argued by the government, leaves hospitals and other government bodies free to disclose this information outside the FIPPA scheme, violates the freedom of expression. It is therefore the failure to ensure a framework for access to information, with all of its balancing exceptions and limitations that presents the constitutional problem. In rejecting the sufficiency of assurances by government that information can be provided outside of FIPPA on a voluntary basis, he noted that “Ontario has not pointed to any policy or legislative provision which would allow interested parties to rely on voluntary disclosure by Ontario.” (at para 40)

Justice Labrosse also rejected Ontario’s claims that Charter rights were not affected since statistical data was already available from other sources such as the Canadian Institutes for Health Information (CIHI), billing information voluntarily disclosed by the government, and statistical information available in some scholarly research. The government argued that this information was sufficient to allow for an informed public debate. In his view, significant discrepancies between the government data and the CIHI data meant that the CIHI data was not an adequate substitute. He also added that “requiring interested parties to project forward from dated statistical information published in journals” (at para 42) was also not sufficient to allow for meaningful public discussion.

Although Justice Labrosse accepted that the government had a pressing and substantial concern in protecting the safety and security of patients and health care providers, he found that the s. 65(5.7) went too far. He noted that the exception “includes no criteria to allow for disclosure of records which do not impact the objective of protecting the privacy and safety of patients seeking abortion services” (at para 66). The suspended declaration of invalidity means that the government now has 12 months in which to try to craft an exception that better balances their objectives with the public right of access to information.

It is worth comparing the provision struck down in this case with the new exemption in FIPPA for information relating to medically assisted dying. Medically assisted dying is also controversial and the government was clearly concerned about possible privacy and security implications for individuals and institutions. Yet the solution they crafted is much narrower than the broad exemption for information relating to abortion services. A new section 65(11) provides that: “This Act does not apply to identifying information in a record relating to medical assistance in dying.” This exception is only with respect to “identifying information”, rather than with respect to “records” more generally. Section 65(12) defines “identifying information as information “(a) that relates to medical assistance in dying, and (b) that identifies an individual or facility, or for which it is reasonably foreseeable in the circumstances that it could be utilized, either alone or with other information, to identify an individual or facility”. This provision may well serve as a model for the government as it crafts a new exception to replace s. 65(5.7).

 

 

Last modified on Monday, 19 June 2017 07:11
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