Institutions must consider public interest in third-party information

Complaint: Transport Canada applied section 20, which protects third-party information, to withhold reports on inspections of the Ste-Anne tunnel in St-Hyacinthe, Quebec.

Investigation: The OIC learned that the tunnel—which is situated near two large residences for long-term care and the elderly—had various structural problems that were of concern to local residents. The OIC considered these factors to be relevant to the public’s health and safety, as per subsection 20(6), outweighing any third-party interests in protecting the information.

Outcome: The institution and the third party agreed that there was a compelling public interest in releasing the information, and disclosed it in its entirety.

Information Commissioner’s position

  • When applying section 20 to withhold third-party information, institutions must consider whether there is a public interest in disclosing the records related to public health, safety or protection of the environment that outweighs third-party interests in protecting the information, as per subsection 20(6).
  • In some circumstances, there may be competing public health, safety or environmental interests. For example, an institution argued that releasing specific technical details about the design of an oil refinery’s containment system could make the refinery vulnerable to anyone with harmful intentions. The OIC agreed that the public’s interest in the information did not outweigh the risk to public safety that could result from disclosure of the information.
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