Four human-rights groups are asking an Ontario court for an urgent hearing to shut down police access to a provincial database of people who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
The database is available for use by police, firefighters and paramedics only “to prevent, respond to or alleviate the effects of the COVID-19 emergency, such as ensuring appropriate measures are taken to protect police personnel when responding to a call,” according to a government memo on April 6, disclosed in legal documents in the case.
“It is critical that first responders have access to COVID-19 status information (positive status only) of individuals they are coming into contact with to help protect and reduce the potential spread of the virus to first responders and those they come into contact with in the community,” Richard Stubbings, an assistant deputy minister in the Solicitor-General’s Ministry, wrote to police boards and chiefs.
It’s unclear whether police have made use of this access.
The human-rights groups say in their legal challenge that giving police access to the COVID-19 database violates Ontario’s health-privacy law and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including the right to personal security, and falls outside the limits of provincial emergency powers.
The groups (the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Aboriginal Legal Services, the Black Legal Action Centre and the HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario) also say the police access to the information could bring harm to members of Black, Indigenous and racialized communities, and to people who use illicit drugs or have HIV-AIDS.
Khalid Janmohamed, a staff lawyer at the HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario, said in an interview that minority groups are disproportionately targeted by police, and giving police private health information could lead “to greater invasion, more scrutiny of those communities.” He said policing responses to public health problems may deter people from being tested.
The groups have not filed evidence on police use of the database, but Abby Deshman, a CCLA lawyer, said in an interview the matter is urgent, in her view, because several police boards, including those in Ottawa, London and York Region, have passed policies paving the way for using it.
The hearing has been tentatively scheduled for Nov. 17 or Nov. 18 in Ontario Divisional Court, four months from now. Those dates were established after a case conference among the parties on Wednesday, said Brian Gray, a spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney-General. Another case conference will be held the week of Aug. 10, and the hearing dates could be revised, he said.
Mr. Gray declined to comment on the court challenge itself while it is before the courts.
Ontario Superior Court Justice Lise Favreau, who set the tentative hearing dates, will be issuing a document on Friday explaining the reasons for those dates, court spokesman Mohan Sharma told The Globe and Mail on Thursday.