Watchdog issues 'strong rebuke' to Department of Justice over handling of info request

Watchdog issues 'strong rebuke' to Department of Justice over handling of info request

Newfoundland and Labrador's transparency watchdog has issued a report critical of the Department of Justice — the body that oversees the province's open-records system — calling its actions related to a recent access-to-information request "a complete abdication of responsibility."

Information commissioner Donovan Molloy recommended the department write a letter of apology to the person who made the request for the "fundamentally unacceptable" way it was handled.

In a statement to CBC News, Justice Minister Andrew Parsons stressed that the department takes its responsibilities "very seriously" and "regrets missing the timelines on this request."

No response to request

In early December, someone made an access-to-information request for a code of ethics related to the province's Judicial Council.

The council reviews applications from people who want to become a provincial court judge, and makes recommendations to the minister.

According to Molloy's report, two months went by without any response from the department.

That is not acceptable, the commissioner wrote.

"(The law) contains clear, explicit and mandatory provisions setting out the steps that must be followed by public bodies in responding to access requests," Molloy wrote in his report.

"Mandatory time limits are imposed for the completion of required actions. Despite 18 months of experience in dealing with the new act, the department disregarded every mandatory step and deadline."

Instead, the department got "bogged down" in an internal process debating issues of judicial independence, Molloy wrote, then "simply gave up."

Department 'worked hard' to get info

In an emailed statement to CBC News, Justice Minister Andrew Parsons stressed that the Judicial Council is a separate public body, and the Department of Justice and Public Safety does not have the records that were requested.

"In an effort to try to facilitate access to the requested records, the department was working hard to access the information required to respond to this request," Parsons noted.

"The Judicial Council refused to provide the records upon request from the Department of Justice and Public Safety. Unfortunately, the department was unable to acquire the information in a timely manner and, therefore, did not meet the legislated timelines set out in the act."

Parsons indicated that any further questions should be steered to the Judicial Council.

'What's past is past'

In an interview, Molloy described the report as a "strong rebuke, because the mandatory deadlines weren't followed."

But he acknowledged this was a "novel situation," and officials in the department have "to their credit" reached out to his office for a meeting on the issue.

"What's past is past, the whole point of it now is to move forward to ensure that nothing like this happens again," Molloy said.

"They've certainly expressed a willingness to get together and talk and to try and avoid this type of thing happening."