2009-2010 Complaints and investigations

Under the Access to Information Act, anyone who makes a request for information to a federal institution and is dissatisfied with the response or the way it was handled has the right to complain to us.

One common reason for complaints is the time it takes an institution to respond to a request. Federal institutions have 30 days to do so but they may extend that time for a limited number of reasons—for example, when they have to search a large number of records, consult other federal institutions or notify third parties—and they must notify requesters of these extensions within the initial 30 days. Requesters may file complaints about this notice, about the length of extensions or because they feel, generally, that the process is taking too long.

We receive complaints that fall into three broad categories:

Administrative complaints

  • Extensions: The institution extended the time it required to process the request.

  • Delays: The institution failed to provide access to the information within the time limit set out in the Act.

  • Fees: The fee the institution proposed to charge was unreasonable.

  • Miscellaneous complaints, including the following:
    • Access to records: The institution did not give the requester an opportunity to examine the information.
    • Official language of choice: The institution did not provide the information in the requester’s official language of choice.
    • Alternative format: The institution did not provide the information in an alternative format that a person with a sensory disability could use.
    • Other matters: This includes complaints about any other matter relating to requesting or obtaining access to records under the Act.

Refusal complaints

  • Exemptions: The institution withheld the records under specific provisions of the Act. For instance: the information was obtained in confidence from foreign governments; the information relates to the safety of individuals, national security or commercial interests; the records contain personal information; or the information will be published within the next 90 days.

  • No records: The institution found no documents relevant to the request.

  • Incomplete response: The institution did not provide all the information it was required to release that matched the request.

  • Excluded information: The institution did not disclose information that is excluded from the Act, such as publications, library or museum material.
    • Information related to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) journalistic, creative or programming activities is also excluded.1 Information held by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited is excluded, except for information about its general administration and the operation of any nuclear facility.

Cabinet confidence exclusion complaints

  • Access to records refused: The institution did not disclose a document that contains a Cabinet confidence, which is excluded from the Act. The Commissioner may not review such records.

The Act requires that we investigate all the complaints we receive and that those investigations be thorough, unbiased and conducted in private. Although there is no deadline in the law for when we must complete our investigations, we strive to carry them out as quickly as possible.

The Commissioner has strong investigative powers. However, there are few incentives for institutions to comply with the Act, and only limited consequences for their not doing so. The Commissioner may not order a complaint to be resolved in a particular way, relying instead on persuasion to settle disputes or asking the Federal Court of Canada to review the case, when an institution does not follow a recommendation on disclosure of information.

1 At the time of writing this report, the CBC was of the view that the Information Commissioner does not have the right to review such records in the course of complaints investigations, and the matter was before the Federal Court of Canada. (See Production of records for more information on this case.)

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