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CHAPTER 6- Changes to the Access to Information Act

The Federal Accountability Act

The Federal Accountability Act introduced substantive changes to the Access to Information Act, many of which came into force in 2007-2008. One important amendment modified the definition of government institution. As a result, about 70 institutions are now covered by the Act, including officers of Parliament and Crown corporations and their wholly owned subsidiaries. Specific exemptions and exclusions were also added for the institutions that became subject to the Act.

Another important amendment introduced as part of the Federal Accountability Act, and which came into force on September 1, 2007, adds a duty to assist requesters to the obligations of federal institutions under the law. This duty has several aspects:

  • to make all reasonable efforts to assist a requester with an access request;
  • to respond to the request accurately and completely;
  • to provide timely access to the record in the format requested; and
  • to do all of this regardless of the identity of the requester.

Duty to assist requires federal institutions to meet high standards in their dealings with requesters. With regard to access to information and the role of the Information Commissioner and our office, the duty to assist means two things:

  • It implies a commitment to a culture of service and underscores the importance of access to information as a service.
  • It changes duty to assist from a moral obligation to a statutory one-in fact, a statutory principle under which to interpret the Act.

The Commissioner and the Office have already taken this new approach to heart. Most of the cases this annual report presents reflect the importance of improving communications and service to requesters. The Commissioner has been very active in meeting heads of institutions to promote the duty to assist. We prepared a comparative study that looks at whether various provinces and territories and other countries have a duty to assist principle in their legislation and, if so, how they implement it. The study will be available on our website.

Lastly, section 8.1 of the Access to Information Regulations was added as a result of the new statutory duty to assist. This section allows an institution to decline to release a record in a requested format when it does not already exist in that format and lists factors institutions must take into account before converting records into the format requested, should they choose to do so.

Other changes

Other statutes brought about changes to the Access to Information Act. One noteworthy change was made to the definition of aboriginal government in section 13 to include the Tsawwassen Government (First Nations Jurisdiction over Education in British Columbia Act, S.C. 2006, c. 10).

Further, a new exemption was included in section 20 for information supplied in confidence by a third party for the preparation, maintenance, testing or implementation of emergency management plans that concern the vulnerability of infrastructure (Emergency Management Act, S.C. 2007, c. 15).

Appendix 3 contains a list of other changes made to the Schedules and Designation Order of the Access to Information Act this year.

Proposed changes to the Act

The Commissioner monitors Parliament's activities and advises the government and Parliament on proposals for reform of the Access to Information Act and on the implications of draft legislation on the right of access to information.

During 2007-2008, Parliament had two sessions. The first ended by prorogation on September 14, 2007; the second started on October 16, 2007. There were a number of Bills in existence at the time of prorogation, including Private Members' Bills, that proposed amendments to the Access to Information Act, but they all died on the Order Paper. Some Bills were reintroduced during the Second Session. For a list of Bills, see Appendix 3.

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