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This investigation showed what some institutions are doing, against the spirit of the Act, to buy time to respond to requests.
Subsection 9(1) of the Act allows institutions to extend the time limit to respond to a request for three reasons: the request is for a large volume of records, or requires a search through a large volume of records, and, as a result, meeting the 30-day deadline would interfere with operations; the institution needs to conduct consultations that cannot be completed within the original time limit; or the institution needs to consult a third party, which requires the institution to follow a formal notification process.
A requester asked Health Canada for drug submissions information. He subsequently complained to us about the length of a time extension Health Canada took to conduct consultations on his request. We discovered during our investigation that Health Canada had implemented a practice of claiming an extension to consult third parties (which is required to find out whether they consent to the disclosure of their information as described in subsection 20(1) of the Act) informally (citing the second reason, above) to give itself more time to complete the review of the technical records, and then take a second extension to consult the same third parties under the formal notification process.
Resolving the complaint
To evaluate whether institutions claimed the proper paragraph of section 9 for the extension, investigators usually verify the status of the organizations or individuals the institutions consulted. In this case, we also had to review the records to satisfy ourselves that the institution used the proper provision of the Act. Our review confirmed that consultations with third parties were required. However, the institution did not follow the proper process. This rendered the extension invalid, and the initial 30-day deadline remained unchanged.
Although institutions need to consult third parties, it was never intended under the Act that institutions could use double extensions to give third parties more time to review records. Institutions must follow the specific process to notify third parties described in subsection 27(1), which includes claiming the extension under paragraph 9(1)(c) to consult third parties when the records pertain to section 20.