Frequently asked questions
When can I make a complaint?
If you submitted a request for information to a federal government institution under the Access to Information Act and you are not satisfied with how the institution processed it, you may complain to us.
You must file a complaint within 60 days after one of the following:
- the institution refused to grant you access to the requested records;
- you received some or all of the records you requested; or
- you become aware of other grounds for a complaint.
Types of complaints
How do I make a complaint?
The Office of the Information Commissioner has taken measures to follow the recommendations of public health officials to keep its employees safe and healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic and is currently operating under alternative work arrangements until further notice.
We presently have very limited access to complaints received by mail. In order to ensure the most efficient processing of your complaint, we strongly encourage the electronic filing of complaints, through our online complaint form. Alternatively, you may download and complete the complaint form and submit by fax at 819-994-1768 or by email at Greffe-Registry@oic-ci.gc.ca.
The OIC remains focused on upholding the requirements of the Access to Information Act and will continue to exercise its mandate, accepting and processing all complaints.
When will the investigation be complete?
Some complaints can be easily resolved, while others may require an extensive investment of time and resources. In all cases, we investigate complaints as quickly as possible.
Every case is different, so it is difficult to predict exactly how long an investigation will take. However, investigators generally aim to complete investigations into administrative complaints within 90 days and refusal complaints with nine months.
The following factors can affect how long an investigation will take:
- the number of records to be reviewed;
- the complexity of a case, or the number of issues to be investigated;
- the level of cooperation or ease of communication with institutions, complainants and other concerned parties;
- the availability of witnesses and documentary evidence;
- the completeness and quality of the information institutions, complainants and other parties have provided; and/or
- legal issues.
What is my role as a complainant?
Before filing a complaint, you may wish to try to resolve the matter with the help of the Access to Information and Privacy Coordinator at the institution to which you submitted your request.
When you submit your complaint, ensure that the wording is clear, concise and complete and that you have included all relevant details and attached any related documents. For example, for refusal and time extension complaints, include a copy of the letter you received from the institution in response to your request.
You may provide any other details you think we need to know. Please do not send additional information that is not directly relevant to the complaint.
During the complaint process, we may ask you to further clarify the issues in your complaint. Your organized and timely response to these request, along with your cooperation with the investigator throughout the process, will help us complete the investigation faster.
What is the institution's role in the complaint process?
During the investigation, the institution must justify the decisions it made when it responded to your request, by providing us with the following:
- a clear description of the relevant facts and circumstances of the processing of the request;
- copies of any documentation relevant to the matter under investigation, including any correspondence between the institution and the complainant, and relevant institutional policies or procedures;
- a clear and well-thought-out statement of the institution's position on the complaint, about which the institution consulted with the appropriate internal parties; and
- the specifics of any action the institution has taken to date, or plans to take, to address the complaint.
Early investment of effort and cooperation by institutions in responding to complaints facilitates our investigations.
What are representations?
During investigations, we give complainants, institutions and other connected parties a reasonable opportunity to provide their position on the matter.
These representations, as they are known, outline why these parties think the Information Commissioner should resolve the matter in a certain way. For example, when an institution applied exemptions to withhold a record, their representations would explain why they did so. The complainant’s representations might provide reasons why the exemptions do not apply.
It is up to institutions to show that exemptions apply; therefore, they must provide reasons and evidence that they do.
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, and Cabinet confidences.
What is the difference between a mandatory exemption and a discretionary exemption?
The Access to Information Act contains both exemptions that institutions must apply and those that they may choose to apply in certain circumstances.
Mandatory exemptions include section 13 (information obtained in confidence), section 19 (personal information) and section 20 (third-party information). Some mandatory exemptions contain exceptions, but otherwise if the information meets the requirements of an exemption, institutions must use it.
Discretionary exemptions require institutions to consider whether or not to release the information. Discretionary exemptions include section 18 (economic interests of Canada), section 16 (law enforcement and investigations) and section 21 (advice and recommendations). If the information meets the requirements of the exemption and the institution can show that they weighed the relevant factors for and against disclosure before refusing to release the information, they may do so.
Guidance on how we interpret the exercise of discretion
What is the difference between a class-based exemption and an injury-based exemption?
Class-based exemptions apply when the information is the type (or class) of information described in the exemption. In addition, the exemption does not note any consequence that might result from the information being released. Examples of class-based exemptions include section 23 (solicitor-client privilege) and section 24 (statutory prohibitions against disclosure).
Injury-based exemptions require institutions to show that some harm would occur if the information were disclosed. Examples of injury-based exemptions include section 16 (law enforcement and investigations) and section 18 (economic interests of Canada).
Is there a limit to the number of complaints I may submit?
No. However, we may not be able to give equal priority to all of your complaints and will decide on a suitable approach for managing the files while respecting your rights under the Act. In particular, we will work with you to prioritize your complaints.
On occasion, we may defer investigating new complaints submitted by a complainant until their existing complaints are closed. This enables us to ensure fair distribution of resources among all complainants.
What are the Commissioner’s powers with regard to criminal offenses?
The Act contains two offences:
- Section 67 prohibits the obstruction of the Information 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, proposing or causing anyone else to do any of the prohibited acts.
The Office of the Information Commissioner is not a court or tribunal, and has no authority to determine civil or criminal liability. The Information Commissioner has no authority to investigate criminal offenses. 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, an officer or an employee of a government institution (Subsection 63(2)). Such information was disclosed to the Attorney General in the past.
There are some instances where the Commissioner is not authorized to disclose information, as explained in a special report regarding a case where political staff instructed public servants to "unrelease" a report and to only disclose a portion of the report despite the delegated official’s decision to disclose the entire report. The Commissioner’s investigation centered on an incident of interference with an access request by a political staff member in a Minister's office, but the confidentiality provisions of the Act made it impossible for the Commissioner to disclose information related to interference involving political staff members to the Attorney General, as they are not “a director, an officer or an employee of a government institution”.
What if my complaint is against the Office of the Information Commissioner?
submit complaints about our handling of your access request to the Information Commissioner ad hoc.