OTTAWA – It’s been said the wheels of justice turn slowly, and a new look at Canada’s creaky access-to-information system appears to bear that out.
According to data collected as part of a Liberal question in the House of Commons, Justice Canada is the federal department with the longest running, active access-to-information request — an unfulfilled inquiry that dates back more than six years.
Under the Access to Information Act passed by Parliament, departments are supposed to respond to requests for government records within 30 days, although in practice long delays have become routine.
Liberal MP David McGuinty placed a question on the House of Commons order paper seeking a list of the five oldest access requests in each government department, agency and commission.
The results are a blast from the past.
Justice Canada, with two outstanding requests from 2009, including one from Jan. 23 that year, was the lead laggard — but hardly alone in having a docket of very slow responses.
Environment Canada, Finance, Health, Public Works, Parks Canada and the Privy Council Office — the bureaucrats who support the Prime Minister’s Office and cabinet — all show active access requests dating back to 2010, more than a year before the last federal election.
A host of outstanding requests from 2011 remain scattered across an even wider array of government departments.
“My first reaction was: information delayed is information denied,” McGuinty said of the list of tardy government responses.
“The length — some of these going back as far as six years, almost seven years — it’s laughable. That’s not an access-to-information system in a 21st century, post-modern government.”
Combined with rampant redactions of material when it is finally released, McGuinty said the system is being used to suppress information rather than access it.
That’s simply not the case, countered Stephanie Rea, a spokeswoman in the office of Treasury Board President Tony Clement, who oversees the access system.
“The overall trend is that the access-to-information program is managing increased demands for access to information well,” Rea said in an email.
She pointed to a nine per cent increase in requests in 2013-14, with 61 per cent of all information requests completed within 30 days.
Rea said departments may have legitimate reasons for delaying the release of some records, “such as the need to consult appropriate parties or the need to search and review a large volume of materials.”
A Justice Canada spokesman said for large-scale requests that require consultations, the department will seek an extension “for a reasonable period of time.”
“We are making every effort to complete the requests in question, and have released interim packages to the requesters for three of the five (oldest) files,” spokesman Ian McLeod said in an email Thursday.
Information commissioner Suzanne Legault issued a report in March calling for a “long overdue” modernization of the 1983 Access to Information Act, including tighter timelines for processing access requests and enforceable powers to order agencies to release records.
The access law allows people who pay $5 to ask federal agencies for records ranging from audits and expense reports to internal emails, memos and briefing notes.
If an agency can’t respond within 30 days, it is supposed to provide a good reason why an extension is necessary.
The list provided to McGuinty illustrates just how those extensions are used.
Virtually all of the extended delays are attributed to third-party consultations or the request imposing “unreasonable interference with the operations of government.”
Health Canada, for instance, requested a 990-day extension on one 2010 in request under those two provisions — yet still had not responded to the access request by June 12, 2015.
A request submitted to the Public Prosecution Service of Canada in March 2014 is currently under a 1,460-day extension, according to the documents.