Frequently asked questions
Before submitting a complaint
Who may submit a complaint?
The following individuals and corporations, who have the right under the Access to Information Act to make access requests for records under the control of government institutions, may submit complaints to the Information Commissioner:
- Canadian citizens
- permanent residents (as defined in subsection 2(1) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act)
- individuals present in Canada who are not Canadian citizens or permanent residents
- corporations present in Canada.
For complaints related to access requests, the complainant must be the person or corporation who made the access request. For example, a complaint about a refusal of access must come from the person who was refused access to records. This includes when a lawyer or other person, or a law firm or other organization made an access request on someone’s behalf. The person or organization who made the access request is the complainant.
However, complainants may authorize someone else to submit complaints for them and to act on their behalf during investigations. When this is the case, the Office of the Information Commissioner deals directly with the authorized person, but the complainant remains the person or corporation who made the access request.
What may I complain about?
You may complain about matters related to an access request you made to a government institution covered by the Access to Information Act, including the response you received, that you did not receive a response or that an institution treated your request improperly in some regard.
Other matters related to requesting and obtaining records under Part 1 of the Act, including matters not associated with a specific access request, may also be the subject of complaints.
More information: Types of complaints
The Information Commissioner has no authority to investigate criminal offences under the Act. There are two such offences: section 67, which, in simple terms, prohibits the obstruction of investigations; and section 67.1, which prohibits destroying and otherwise mistreating records with the intent of denying a right of access. Note, however, that while the Commissioner may not investigate the intent behind the destruction of records, she may investigate the destruction itself as a refusal to grant access.
When the Commissioner is of the view that there is evidence a director, officer or employee of an institution may have committed an offence, she may disclose information to the Attorney General about the offence.
What are the Information Commissioner’s powers with regard to criminal offences?
The Access to Information Act contains two offences:
- Section 67 prohibits the obstruction of the Commissioner and anyone acting on her behalf or under her direction in the performance of their duties and functions under the Act.
- Section 67.1 prohibits all persons from destroying, mutilating, altering, falsifying or concealing records with the intent of denying a right of access under the Act. It also forbids directing, counselling, proposing or causing anyone else to do any of the prohibited acts.
The Commissioner has no authority to investigate criminal offences. She can only disclose information to the Attorney General if, in the Commissioner’s opinion, there is evidence of a possible commission of an offence by a director, officer or employee of a government institution (subsection 63(2)). Such information was disclosed to the Attorney General in the past.
What organizations may I complain about?
The Access to Information Act covers about 250 institutions. Most of them are federal.
This means that that the Act does not cover organizations such as police forces (except the Royal Canadian Mounted Police), municipalities (e.g. the City of Ottawa), provincial and territorial organizations and private companies. The Office of Information Commissioner does not accept complaints against such organizations or against individuals.
What if my complaint is against the Office of the Information Commissioner?
If your complaint relates to an access request made to the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC), submit your complaint to the Information Commissioner ad hoc.
The OIC is subject to the Access to Information Act but does not investigate complaints against itself.
I made a request under the Privacy Act. To whom do I submit my complaint?
If your complaint relates to a request made under the Privacy Act, or to another matter covered by this law, submit your complaint to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner:
30 Victoria Street
Gatineau QC K1A 1H3
What is the deadline for submitting a complaint?
You must submit a complaint within 60 calendar days after one of the following:
- the day you received a notice under section 7 of the Access to Information Act that the institution refuses to grant access to some or all of the records you requested
- the day you are given access to some or all of the records you requested
- in any other case, the day you become aware that other grounds of complaint exist.
It is important not to miss the 60-day deadline, since the Information Commissioner has no discretion to extend this time limit.
Is there a maximum number of complaints I may submit?
No. However, someone from the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) may work with you to prioritize your complaints in order to manage them effectively while respecting your rights under the Access to Information Act.
On occasion, the OIC may defer investigating new complaints from you until in-progress investigations are completed. This enables the OIC to ensure fair distribution of resources among all complainants.
Submitting a complaint
How do I submit a complaint?
There is an online complaint form and a fillable PDF. Using the online form will ensure the most efficient processing of your complaint. Click the “Submit a complaint” tab at the bottom of the screen to get started.
The Registry at the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) can answer your questions about how to submit a complaint, how to complete the complaint form, and where to send your documents and in what format.
To request accommodations for a disability or to speak to someone about needs related to one of the grounds of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act, contact the OIC Registry (Greffe-Registry@oic-ci.gc.ca or 1-800-267-0441).
More information: What the OIC Registry does
What do I do if I need an accommodation to submit my complaint?
To request accommodation for a need related to one of the prohibited grounds of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act, or if you have questions about accommodation during investigations, first review Policy: accommodation when receiving services from the Office of the Information Commissioner and then contact the OIC Registry (Greffe-Registry@oic-ci.gc.ca or 1-800-267-0441).
Do you have any guidelines for submitting a complaint?
- Before you submit your complaint, make sure you are within the 60-day time limit. More information: Timeframe for submitting a complaint
- When you submit your complaint, ensure the wording is clear, concise and complete, include all relevant details and attach all relevant documents. For example, include a copy of your access request, plus any notice or correspondence you received from the institution (e.g. the response to your access request, a notice about an extension of time).
- You may provide any other details directly relevant to your complaint that you think the Office of the Information Commissioner needs to know.
- Keep all relevant documents until the investigation is complete.
- When using the online complaint form, you may submit multiple complaints against the same institution.
- When using the PDF complaint form, it is best to submit one form per access request, unless the same allegations apply to more than one request you made to the same institution (e.g. a delay in responding).
You may authorize someone else to submit a complaint(s) on your behalf and act for you during any resulting investigation. If you wish to do this, you must complete the authorization form and have the authorized person submit it with your complaint.
I have questions about submitting a complaint. Whom should I contact?
The Registry at the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) can answer your questions about submitting a complaint and the investigation process, about how to complete the complaint form and where to send your documents and in what format.
Contact the OIC Registry: Greffe-Registry@oic-ci.gc.ca or 1-800-267-0441
More information: What the OIC Registry does
After submitting a complaint
Does the Information Commissioner have to accept my complaint?
No. The Commissioner may find that your complaint is inadmissible if it is against an individual or against an organization not covered by the Access to Information Act or if you submit your complaint after the 60-day submission deadline. More information: Timeframe for submitting a complaint.
In addition, the Commissioner does not accept complaints that fall outside her mandate (e.g. about requests made under the Privacy Act) or complaints for which the complainant does not supply enough information to determine whether they are admissible.
Does the Information Commissioner have to investigate my complaint once she accepts it?
No. The Access to Information Act allows the Commissioner to refuse to investigate complaints.
There are two reasons the Commissioner may refuse to investigate a complaint:
- In her view, investigating the complaint is unnecessary. This could happen, for example, when she determines she has investigated the same matter before. OR
- In the Commissioner’s view, the complaint is trivial, frivolous or vexatious, or was made in bad faith.
When will my complaint be assigned to an investigator?
In all cases, the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) assigns complaints to investigators as quickly as possible. However, sometimes there are delays, usually due to the number of complaints the OIC has in its inventory and the number of new complaints it has to process prior to investigation.
The OIC strives to assign 85 percent of complaints about delays and extensions of time within 30 days after determining they are admissible and gathering the information and documents necessary for the investigation. For complaints about refusals of access (e.g. complaints about an institution’s use of exemptions or failure to conduct a reasonable search for requested records), the comparable target is 85 percent assigned within 180 days.
My contact information is changing. Whom do I tell?
Complainants, institutions and third parties are responsible for keeping their contact information up to date with the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC). If you move or your telephone number, email address or mailing address changes, please advise the OIC Registry as soon as possible: Greffe-Registry@oic-ci.gc.ca or 1-800-267-0441. During investigations, parties may also give their updated contact information to the investigator.
When the OIC cannot reach a party, it will make reasonable efforts to contact them but, if these are not successful, will proceed without the benefit of the party’s input.
During the investigation
What happens during the investigation of my complaint?
Each investigation is unique but, generally, all investigations of admissible complaints follow the same steps:
- The investigator gathers and analyzes information and documents, and communicates with you and other involved parties, such as the institution, when necessary. (See also, Making representations during investigations.)
- With all the facts and analysis in hand, the investigator recommends to the Information Commissioner an outcome for your complaint: whether it is well founded or not well founded, or whether the Commissioner should cease investigating it.
- The Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) sends you a final report outlining the investigator’s analysis and conclusions, and indicating the outcome of the investigation. The report will also list any order(s) and/or recommendation(s) the Commissioner has made and indicate whether the institution intends to implement them.
How long will the investigation take?
Investigators can conclude some investigations quickly, while others may require an extensive investment of time and resources.
In all cases, the Office of the Information Commissioner investigates complaints as efficiently as possible. However, every case is different, so it is difficult to predict exactly how long an investigation will take.
The following factors can affect the timelines:
- the volume of new complaints received and the resources available to investigate them
- the number of records to be reviewed
- the complexity of the case or the number of allegations to be investigated
- the amount of cooperation from or ease of communication with institutions, complainants and other concerned parties
- the availability of documents and information related to the complaint
- the completeness and quality of the information institutions, complainants and other parties provide
- legal matters.
Generally, investigators aim to complete investigations into complaints about delays and extensions of time within 60 days and complaints about refusals of access (e.g. those involving an institution’s refusal, based on exemptions, to disclose information) within nine months of being assigned to them.
What are representations?
Representations include documents, information and facts the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) gathers during investigations from complainants, institutions and other parties, as well as all parties’ views on the matters under investigation. For example, an institution might explain in its representations why a record is exempt from disclosure under a provision of the Access to Information Act, while a complainant might list reasons why the record is not exempt.
The Information Commissioner is required, during investigations, to give complainants, institutions and other parties to the complaint a reasonable opportunity to provide their representations.
Organized and timely responses to investigators’ requests for representations, along with parties’ cooperation, help the OIC complete investigations faster.
More information: Making representations during investigations
What is the difference between an exemption and an exclusion?
Exemptions: Institutions use exemptions to withhold information. Exemptions are found in sections 13 to 24 and section 26 of the Access to Information Act.
Exclusions: The Act does not apply to certain records, including published material or material the public can buy (section 68) and Cabinet confidences (section 69).
More information: Access to Information Act: relevant provisions
What is the institution’s role during an investigation?
The institution must provide documents and information to the Office of the Information Commissioner at the start of the investigations. The documents the institution must provide include the original access request and any response or notice of any extension of time the institution issued. The institution must also provide printouts from its case management system related to processing the request, and correspondence within the institution and to and from the requester about the access request.
During an investigation, the institution must justify the decisions it made while responding to the access request.
Early investment of effort and cooperation by institutions facilitates investigations.
I received a notice that the Information Commissioner is ceasing to investigate my complaint. Why?
The Access to Information Act allows the Commissioner to stop investigations for two reasons:
- In her view, investigating the complaint is unnecessary. This could happen, for example, when the institution responds to the access request before the investigation is complete. OR
- It becomes apparent to her during the investigation that the complaint is trivial, frivolous or vexatious, or was made in bad faith.
More information: What are the possible outcomes for my complaint?
My complaint is about an institution withholding personal information under subsection 19(1). Will the Privacy Commissioner be involved in the investigation?
When the Information Commissioner intends to order an institution to disclose information it withheld under subsection 19(1), she must consult the Privacy Commissioner and provide a reasonable opportunity for the Privacy Commissioner to make representations.
The Information Commissioner may also decide to consult the Privacy Commissioner at any point during an investigation.
The Information Commissioner may disclose personal information to the Privacy Commissioner when she consults him.
More information: Making representations during investigations
What are the Information Commissioner’s responsibilities towards third parties during investigations?
When the Commissioner intends to order the disclosure of records she has reason to believe might contain information described in subsection 20(1) (third-party information), or make a recommendation to this effect, she must do the following:
- During the investigation: provide the third parties to whom the information relates with a reasonable opportunity to make representations.
- At the end of the investigation: make every reasonable effort to notify the third parties to whom the information relates of her intention to order the institution to disclose it and ask them to make representations on why the institution should not disclose the information.
Third parties include private companies and individuals, but not the person who made the access request.
More information: Making representations during investigations
What do I do if I need an accommodation during the investigation?
To request accommodation for a need related to one of the prohibited grounds of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act, or if you have questions about accommodation during investigations, first review Policy: accommodation when receiving services from the Office of the Information Commissioner and then contact the investigator assigned to your complaint.
After the investigation
What are the possible outcomes for my complaint?
The outcome of a complaint reflects the conclusion the Information Commissioner comes to about whether the complaint has merit—that is, whether it is well founded or not well founded. The outcome of a complaint could also be that the Commissioner decides to stop investigating it because, for example, the institution responded to the access request at the centre of the investigation.
More information: What are the possible outcomes for my complaint?
How and to whom does the Information Commissioner report on investigations?
The Commissioner must report to the complainant, institution and other parties once the investigation is complete and she has determined the outcome of the complaint.
- When a complaint is well founded and the Commissioner intends to make orders and/or recommendations, the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) first sends an initial report to the institution. Among other things, this report includes the text of the Commissioner’s orders and/or recommendations. It also includes a request that the institution give notice to the Commissioner of whether the institution plans to implement her orders and/or recommendations and, if so, what specific actions the institution has taken or will take in that regard.
- For all investigations completed with an outcome of well founded or not well founded, the OIC sends a final report to the complainant and institution. This report includes the outcome of the complaint and any orders and/or recommendations and indicates whether the institution intends to implement them.
If the Privacy Commissioner and/or third parties were entitled to make, and made, representations during the investigation, the OIC also sends them a copy of the final report.
When the Commissioner decides to refuse or cease to investigate a complaint, she issues a notice; no final report is issued.
More information: How the OIC processes and investigations complaints
I am not happy about the outcome of my complaint. What can I do?
If you are dissatisfied with the outcome of your complaint or with an order the Information Commissioner made, you may apply for a review by the Federal Court.
Do not send complaints about investigations or complaint outcomes to the Information Commissioner ad hoc. This individual has no power to review investigations carried out by the Office of the Information Commissioner or to review complaint outcomes.
Information Commissioner’s orders
What actions may the Information Commissioner order an institution to take at the conclusion of an investigation?
The Commissioner may order the institution to take any action with respect to a record she considers appropriate to resolve the matters that were at issue during the investigation. However, the allegations in the complaint must fall under paragraph 30(1)(a), (b), (c), (d), (d.1) or (e) (not under paragraph 30(1)(f)) of the Access to Information Act. The Commissioner must also have determined that the complaint is well founded.
Example: the Commissioner may order the institution to disclose information it had withheld under a section of the Act or to respond to an access request.
Since orders must relate to a record, the Commissioner may not order an institution to, for instance, provide additional training to employees on processing access requests or sanction an employee for not responding to an access request quickly. However, she may make a recommendation to that effect.
Why do some orders direct institutions to take an action by a specific date and others use the word “forthwith”?
Orders with specific dates
- The Information Commissioner may determine a reasonable date for the institution to take the action she orders. In those instances, the order contains a specific date.
- During an investigation, the institution may have indicated that it plans to respond to the access request at issue or to disclose previously withheld information by a specific date. When that is the case, the Commissioner may determine this date to be reasonable and issue an order accordingly.
- Alternatively, the Commissioner may determine another date for the institution to take the action she orders, having regard to all the circumstances.
Orders using “forthwith”
The Commissioner may order the institution to take the necessary action forthwith, when this is reasonable and having regard to all the circumstances.
The meaning of the word “forthwith” must be interpreted within the circumstances of the case. The term suggests urgency or immediacy, which is consistent with institutions’ responsibilities under the Access to Information Act to provide timely responses to access requests.
When do the Information Commissioner’s orders take effect?
The date an order takes effect is based on the date of the Commissioner’s final report on the investigation and on whether anyone applies for a review by the Federal Court:
- When only the complainant and institution receive the final report, and neither apply for a review, the order takes effect on the 36th business day after the date of the final report.
- When a third party, the Privacy Commissioner or both also receive a copy of the final report, and no party applies for a review, the order takes effect on the 46th business day after the date of the final report.
If any party to the complaint applies for a review, the implementation of the order is stayed pending the court’s decision.
What can complainants do when they disagree with the terms of an order?
When an allegation in a complaint falls under paragraph 30(1)(a), (b), (c), (d), (d.1) or (e) (but not under paragraph 30(1)(f)) of the Access to Information Act, complainants may apply to the Federal Court, under paragraph 41(1), for a review of the matter that is the subject of the complaint. They must apply for the review within 35 business days after the date of the final report.
More information: Seeking a review by the Federal Court
What must institutions do when they receive an order from the Information Commissioner?
Institutions must comply with the order in its entirety.
If they choose to implement only part of the order or not to implement it all, they must apply to the Federal Court under subsection 41(2) for a review of the matter that is the subject of the order. (Section 4.3.12 of the Treasury Board Policy on Access to Information emphasizes this point.) They must apply for the review within 35 business days after the date of the final report. More information: Seeking a review by the Federal Court
Complainants have the right to appear before the court as a party to this review. Third parties and the Privacy Commissioner may also participate as parties to the review, but only when they were involved in the investigation and when the Information Commissioner sent them a copy of the final report.
The Information Commissioner may also make recommendations for actions the institution could take to resolve matters that arose in the complaint or during the investigation, such as the need for additional training and improved information management practices. The Act does not allow institutions to challenge recommendations before the courts.
What can a third party do when it disagrees with the terms of an order?
If neither the complainant nor the institution applies for a review, third parties that have received the final report have 45 business days after the date of the final report to apply for a review. This is also true for the Privacy Commissioner.
The complainant has the right to appear before the court as a party to any review for which a third party or the Privacy Commissioner applies.
If either the complainant or the institution applies for a review, third parties and the Privacy Commissioner have the right, if they received the final report, to appear before the court as a party to the review.
Can the Information Commissioner take any action when an institution does not implement an order?
Once the Commissioner issues her final report with her findings and order, she has exhausted her powers under the Access to Information Act to investigate the complaint. The Commissioner has no power to force the institution to implement her order.
The Office of the Information Commissioner generally does not track institutions’ compliance with the Commissioner’s orders. However, not implementing her orders is a concern for the Commissioner because they are legally binding.
Institutions are legally obliged to abide by an order from the Commissioner unless they apply to the Federal Court for a review of the matter that is the subject of the order. Such a review has the effect of staying the implementation of the order pending the court’s decision. The Act does not provide any other alternative to implementing the order.
When the Commissioner learns of allegations that an institution did not implement her orders, she may follow up with the institution to ensure implementation is a priority or consider other options, including taking action in Federal Court.
What can a complainant do when an institution does not implement an order?
Complainants have no recourse under the Access to Information Act to force an institution to implement an order when the institution chooses not to implement it and does not seek a review under subsection 41(2). However, when an institution does apply for a review, complainants have the right to appear before the court as a party to this review.
Complainants may wish to consult a lawyer to see whether other laws contain remedies related to the implementation of orders.