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B.C.'s new information commissioner maintains 'major concern' with FOI system

Commissioner Michael Harvey says B.C. public bodies choosing to charge $10 for FOI applications need to process payments with expediency.
B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner Michael Harvey.

The province’s new information and privacy commissioner is advancing the same concerns as his predecessor regarding the B.C. government’s recent introduction of a $10 fee for applications made under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

Glacier Media contacted Michael Harvey of the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) after encountering questionable practices at the B.C. Securities Commission — chiefly that the commission only offered to process the freedom of information (FOI) fee by cheque or wire transfer.

“What I'll say, in general, is that we've heard more about public bodies applying this fee and this issue with the means in which it is being applied and serving as a barrier to access is a major concern for this office,” said Harvey.

(The commission eventually settled with Glacier Media to accept a cash payment, which required a trip by a reporter to the commission’s office in downtown Vancouver at a pre-determiend time. Notably, any FOIPPA application does not commence until payment is received, according to the act, which is silent on method of payment.)

It was fall 2021 when the BC NDP government introduced a $10 fee for applications requesting government information, thus allowing all other public bodies to follow suit.

Harvey did not comment specifically on the commission’s policies but noted a January 2023 OIPC report that found flaws in the administration of the fee while making five recommendations to the government, including four directed at all public bodies, such as the commission and the likes of municipalities and Crown corporations.

“We recommended, at the time, that if the public bodies choose to administer the fee, they should have multiple payment options available for expediency and accessibility for all applicants, including an option that permits an applicant to remain anonymous,” explained Harvey, who was appointed to a six-year term as commissioner by the legislative assembly in May 2024, replacing Michael McEvoy.

Harvey noted the OIPC does not have the ability to receive complaints about whether the fee is applied but it does have the ability to consider the administration of the fee, and if it is done in a way that is consistent with the principles of the act.

“If the public body is applying the fee in a way that actually serves as an obstruction to access, then that's a problem with the administration of the fee and that is something that we would entertain a complaint about, because it may potentially interfere with the administration of the act.

“So it is a concern to hear the fee being applied in ways that may potentially be barriers to access,” said Harvey.

The OIPC actually recommends public bodies not charge the fee altogether.

Harvey said public bodies may also choose to waive fees.

Jason Woywada, executive director of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (BC FIPA), told Glacier Media June 20 the fee is causing more work for the bureaucracies and only serving to undermine access to government information.

The FOI process is managed by the Ministry of Citizens' Services. Minister George Chow declined an opportunity to speak to whether the act is being properly administered and regulated.

Another OIPC report, published last January found FOI applications had declined since introduction of the fee yet government’s response time increased.

“It is clear the imposition of the application fee has not yielded quicker responses for applicants,” McEvoy concluded.

“Overall, government’s timeliness performance is declining. Its ongoing failure to respond to many requests within the time permitted by law and delayed responses without legal authority have compounded the backlog of requests and have significantly increased the average number of days it takes to respond. This means applicants are waiting longer than ever for government to respond to their access requests,” added McEvoy.

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