Nova Scotians frustrated by the province's access-to-information and privacy laws have a new champion, Tricia Ralph, but the province's relatively new information and privacy commissioner is sounding a lot like the woman she replaced.
"Updates to the legislation are urgently needed," Ralph said in a message attached to the release Wednesday of her first annual report as commissioner. "Work is required to implement modern legislation that can better protect the access and privacy rights of Nova Scotians."
Ralph, who started her job in March, noted that her predecessor, Catherine Tully, made a similar call in a 2017 report which outlined the changes needed to strengthen privacy provisions in the law and to make access to documents easier.
Premier Stephen McNeil has repeatedly said amending the legislation was not a priority for his government.
Ralph is reiterating the call to amend the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act to give her office order-making powers to replace the current practice of simply making recommendations.
Without the power to compel provincial departments or government agencies to release information, those withholding that information can simply ignore the advice of her office. The only recourse is for an aggrieved party to appeal to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court.
Ralph considered that onerous.
"They might not have enough money to go to court or they might feel intimidated by that process," she said in an interview.
She'd be in favour of what Newfoundland and Labrador has done, making the party withholding the information have to go to court to justify their decision to not release public information.
"The Newfoundland model is a good compromise and appears to be, from all accounts, working well, so it's a model we could look to, for sure," said Ralph.
She would also like to see all public bodies compelled to report to her office when they are made aware of privacy breaches, a requirement now only enshrined in law for health-related information.
"We have that in the Personal Health Information Act but not in the freedom information legislation or the Municipal Government Act, and I think that those pieces of legislation should be updated to require that."
Hundreds of breaches last year
In the annual report, Ralph noted there were 855 breaches of the health information law last year.
When it came to appeals by those seeking information being withheld by government, the commissioner's office opened 596 new files during the past 12 months.
The backlog of cases, which had been reduced to a year-long delay, has now grown to triple that.
"If we could get [appeals] done within a shorter period, you know 180 days or something along those lines, that would be great, but I just think three years is quite long," she said.
NDP Leader Gary Burrill agreed.
In a statement issued by his office Wednesday, Burrill said: "The issue of a three-year backlog on appeals and reviews to the office is especially concerning.
"The people of Nova Scotia have a right to government information. The Liberal government lacks transparency if people are stuck for three years without an answer."
Burrill also supported the call to amend the law.
"What we have here is a situation that needs to be addressed immediately," he said. "The privacy commissioner has rightfully called for urgent updates to the legislation that governs her office to ensure she is able to more effectively do her work."
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