A national office supplies company is appealing a recent Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court decision, in an ongoing case that could have a sweeping impact on how much citizens are permitted to know about how their tax dollars are spent.

The case involves the contract to provide office supplies to Memorial University.

Staples Advantage, the business-to-business division of Staples, won the contract.

Staples went to court to block a competitor from accessing pricing details about how much the university was paying for items like pens, paper clips and highlighters.

The competitor had requested those details through an access to information request.

Staples argued that new, restrictive language brought into law by Bill 29 permitted it to keep the information secret.

But in September, Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court Justice Raymond Whalen rejected Staples’ rationale that disclosure would be harmful to its business.

Whalen stressed in his decision that the overarching purpose of the law is to provide accountability.

“The public is to be given access to records of the public body with limited exceptions,” Whalen wrote.

“While not restricted to the expenditures of public funds, the principle of being accountable to the public applies, in my view, with even greater focus when involving the use of the public’s money.”

But Whalen’s decision ordering the release of the documents has now been stayed, pending Staples’ appeal.

Precedent-setting decision

While the MUN office supplies case involves relatively low-value items, the decision could set a precedent for how much taxpayers are permitted to know about municipal and provincial government spending.

Earlier this year, the province declined to say whether Bill 29 was meant to exclude such pricing information from public disclosure.

An independent panel review is expected to report early in the new year, with recommendations on possible changes to the province’s access to information law.