Nova Scotia's information commissioner 'very frustrated' by current system

Tricia Ralph is the information and privacy commissioner for Nova Scotia. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)
Tricia Ralph is the information and privacy commissioner for Nova Scotia. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)

Nova Scotia's Information and Privacy Commissioner Tricia Ralph is once again asking for significant changes to the law that governs access to information in the province.

She is also calling for a culture change within government departments and other public bodies subject to the law.

In a 47-page submission to a provincial committee reviewing the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, Ralph noted "the problems plaguing access to information and protection of privacy in Nova Scotia are not solely legislative ones."

"In the reviews that my office conducts, we frequently see decisions that disregard the public's presumptive right to all public body information, subject only to the limited and specific exemptions," Ralph wrote in her introductory message to the review panel.

"My office puts a substantial amount of time and effort into helping public bodies understand their legal obligations and explaining to them how and why the laws mean they can or cannot withhold information."

Ralph said in an interview Thursday she is "very frustrated."

"This law says that every member of the public has access to every piece of public body information, except in some few limited circumstances," she said.

"Governments, public bodies should not be withholding information unless they have a really good reason, and they should be explaining that to the public."

Departments refusing recommendations 

Ralph routinely faces government departments simply refusing to go along with recommendations from her office, without explanation. She, and her predecessors, have long asked for the power to order public bodies to release information that is being unlawfully withheld. She has again recommended that change.

Along with giving her office more power, Ralph has also urged government departments, municipalities and others who fall under the law to shift their thinking.

"If you don't actually implement the law in the way that you're supposed to do, that's a real problem," said Ralph. "I think that direction needs to come from the top level of those departments, from the highest level in every public body."

She urged decision-makers to send the message to staff that "our priority is to make things as public as possible, because that's what the law says."

Ralph's filed her submission to the review panel Wednesday, the deadline for submitting feedback to the group, which is made up entirely of government officials.

Key recommendations include:

  • Setting stricter limits on response times for information requests.

  • Properly funding and resourcing government departments to better process requests.

  • Properly funding the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.

  • Granting the commissioner the "same general powers" that exist in other provinces.

The CBC and The Canadian Press have also provided written submissions, recommending some of the changes the commissioner has long advocated, including making the office an officer of the legislature and giving it order-making power.

The panel is expected to submit its report to the justice minister this spring.