Nova Scotia's freedom of information laws allow delays to pile up

Nova Scotia government officials are subject to freedom of information legislation, but they can still bury information under a mountain of delays when they want to.

Applicants face a two-year backlog for appeals to be heard

A recent review of access to information systems across the country, funded by Newspapers Canada, found that 36 per cent of requests to the Nova Scotia government took longer than the prescribed 30 days for a reply. (iStock)

Nova Scotia government officials are subject to freedom of information legislation, but they can still bury information under a mountain of delays when they want to.

The backlog for the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner to review applications is currently two years. That means if a government department refuses a request for information, it will be two years before the appeal is even heard.

There are two parts to the problem: one is the backlog in appeals and the other is just how easy it is for the province to add to that backlog.

A recent review of access to information systems across the country, funded by Newspapers Canada, found that 36 per cent of requests to the Nova Scotia government took longer than the prescribed 30 days for a reply. 

One particular request illustrates the nature of the problem.

Fred Vallance-Jones, who teaches journalism at the University of King's College, worked on the audit for Newspapers Canada with some of his students. They asked for correspondence on changes to Nova Scotia's film tax credit program.

"They told us it would cost $500 to obtain this correspondence," he said. "Then they were going to send us a formal fee estimate, but they never did, so we recorded this one as overdue."

The film tax credit is one of the more controversial issues the McNeil government has addressed in its two years in government. The non-response from the finance department shows government is able to block requests on sensitive topics, if it wants to.

That is a real problem, says Michael Karanicolas, president of the Right to Know Coalition of Nova Scotia.

Shorter timelines in developing countries

"There are access-to-information regimes in place in developing-world countries that provide access in 30 days flat -- places like India where they don't have the same level of digitization and don't have the same level of funding that our bureaucracy has -- and there are even jurisdictions around the world that provide access in two weeks," he said.

"So when you hear about these access to information requests that are taking months to process, I don't think there is any justification for that."

Catherine Tully, Nova Scotia's information and privacy commissioner, has been working to clear the backlog since she took the job a year ago. In that time, the wait for a review has gone from five years to two years. However, the number of requests for review has increased.

Tully expects to have the wait time for a review reduced to 90 days by 2017.

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