Renu Mandhane is director, International Human Rights Program, University of Toronto Faculty of Law
According to recent news reports, the federal information watchdog says her office is almost broke.
While I appreciate her frustration with dwindling funds for her important work, the problems with public access to government information run much deeper. In my experience, accessing government information often requires thousands of dollars and oodles of time. And really, who doesn't have plenty of both?
As a human rights lawyer, much of my job is about holding government accountable to their international human rights commitments. Therefore, I often need to figure out what the government is actually doing, especially when it is shrouded in secrecy. Enter the access to information request. In the past few years, I have made a handful of requests, dutifully paying my $5 in the hopes of receiving documents that will shed some light on Canada's human rights record.
What has transpired is Kafkaesque. Most recently, I requested information from the Department of Justice, Foreign Affairs, and Heritage Canada on our government's process for implementing human rights treaties. Between two departments, I was told that processing of my request would cost…wait for it…more than $4,000 in search fees. While I have asked them to reconsider their position and am awaiting their response, I am not hopeful.
You see, a few years ago, I submitted a request to Public Safety for information about federally-sentenced prisoners with mental health issues, I was informed that some of the information sought would result in more than $5,000 in search fees. I complained to the Office of the Information Commissioner, with little practical result since the fees are allowed by the legislation.
Search fees in the thousands of dollars puts access to information outside the grasp of ordinary Canadians. This is especially problematic when the information sought falls squarely within the public interest and calls out for transparency and accountability on the part of government.
Indeed, the United Nations Human Rights Committee has found that the right to freedom of expression includes the right to access information, and that any fees required should not constitute an unreasonable impediment to access to information. Fees in the range of thousands of dollars surely constitute a breach of Canada's obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
So what is the way forward? In the United States, there are limits on the total fees that can be charged, and educational institutions and the news media are exempt from paying search and retrieval fees. Moreover, even where the requester does not fall within these categories, where disclosure of the information sought is in the "public interest" the legislation provides that fees should be waived or reduced. The U.S. recognizes the important role that universities and the media play in holding government accountable.
If our current government is truly committed to open and transparent government, it should not only continue to appropriately fund the Office of the Information Commissioner, it should enact statutory limits on search fees, and waive these fees for educational institutions, news media, and those who seek information that is in the public interest.