Commissioner calls on Nova Scotia government to overhaul outdated access laws

HALIFAX — Nova Scotia's access and privacy laws are outdated and in need of a complete overhaul, the province's information and privacy commissioner says in a new report.

Tricia Ralph says the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act hasn't been updated in almost 30 years. As a result, she says the laws are not up to the task of protecting Nova Scotians' access and privacy rights.

"Nova Scotia was once a proud leader in the access to information realm as the first in Canada to enact a Freedom of Information Act in 1977," Ralph said in her report issued Thursday. "Unfortunately, despite replacing that act ... in 1993, Nova Scotia is no longer a leader."

Ralph's report highlights the fact that Premier Tim Houston gave the justice minister a mandate to amend the act just over a year ago. Since then, the Progressive Conservative government has said changes will take some time because the act must first undergo a jurisdictional review.

"What's needed now is ... substantial changes to bring the act in line with modern access and privacy laws," Ralph's report says. "There is no need to reinvent the wheel — Nova Scotia can look to other jurisdictions to speed along this process."

As well, she cited a 2017 call for action from the province's previous information and privacy commissioner, Catherine Tully, saying the "changes that were needed in 2017 are still needed in 2022." All of Tully's 34 recommendations were included in Ralph's report, many of them updated with new suggestions for Houston's government.

"Access to information and privacy rights are fundamental to the functioning of an effective democracy," the report says. "I am hopeful that the recommendations put forth by my predecessor and I will be accepted and implemented sooner rather than later. The time for change is now."

Among Ralph's key recommendations is a call for more oversight.

Nova Scotia is the only jurisdiction in Canada where the information and privacy commissioner is not an independent officer of the legislature. Under the current system, recommendations made by the commissioner are often ignored by the public bodies covered by the act because the office lacks the authority to demand action.

Speaking outside the legislature Thursday, Houston waffled when asked about his previous commitment to grant the commissioner order-making powers.

"Since I've come to office, there's a couple of things that have given me pause on that," he said. "From the premier's chair, you have a good view of the landscape on a number of issues."

When asked to provide an example, the premier referred to a case involving an access request from The Canadian Press for information regarding a youth centre. Though the request has been denied by the Justice Department, the information commission has recommended its release.

"The department believes the release of that information would violate the security of the centre ... and would be contrary to the youth criminal code," Houston said. "We can never release information that violates the security of somebody or violates an act."

In a decision released Feb. 15, Ralph said the Justice Department didn't provide sufficient support for its claim that releasing the requested information would harm the security of the facility or the privacy of those involved.

Ralph wrote that the department was refusing to release information about the risk of violence in the facility, concerns the employees' union raised and the department's response to those concerns, as well as an investigation report.

She said the department "did not establish a reasonable basis for believing that danger or harm would result from disclosure."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 28, 2022.

Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press