Nfld. & Labrador

N.L. privacy commissioner says Justice Department preventing him from doing his job

In his submission to a provincial review of access-to-information legislation, Michael Harvey says he should be allowed to review solicitor-client privilege documents.

Michael Harvey says department isn't allowing him to review documents and provide oversight

Michael Harvey was appointed Newfoundland and Labrador's information and privacy commissioner in July 2019. (Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner)

Newfoundland and Labrador's information and privacy commissioner says the provincial Department of Justice's refusal to share documents with him is preventing him from doing his job. 

In his submission Monday to the review of the province's access-to-information legislation, Michael Harvey says he can't do his job properly without records that the department says are exempted from release.

"Over the past year, the Department of Justice has appealed our recommendations to court in an effort to prevent our review of documents over which public bodies are claiming solicitor-client privilege," he told CBC News on Monday.

The information and privacy commissioner's job is to make sure government bodies are following the rules and ensure citizens are not being wrongly denied access to information

"We are only asking that we be allowed to do our job and provide that oversight," said Harvey.

My strongest appeal for this review of ATIPPA is to simply allow me to do my job. Don't go back to Bill 29.- Michael Harvey

In his submission to the review of the Access To Information and Protection of Privacy Act, Harvey argued the importance of the privacy commissioner's oversight function needs to be reinforced.

Harvey's submission noted that was also recommended by a committee that reviewed the former PC government's Bill 29, which in 2012 brought in measures that weakened the powers of the legislative transparency watchdog — including stripping the commissioner's power to review solicitor-client privilege documents.

"That role had been taken away through the infamous Bill 29. The 2014 Wells committee spoke clearly about the importance of the commissioner's ability to review these records to confirm that public bodies were following the law, as did the government of the day in the House of Assembly when ATIPPA 2015 was being debated," said Harvey in the submission.

"Unfortunately, in the past year, the Department of Justice and Public Safety has begun an effort to chip away at that clear legislative direction and is now refusing to provide the records, or indeed, any evidence to the commissioner, in support of its claims of solicitor-client privilege. My strongest appeal for this review of ATIPPA is to simply allow me to do my job. Don't go back to Bill 29."

Harvey says access-to-information legislation should be changed to underscore the importance of oversight, by allowing the commissioner to review solicitor-client privilege documents.

"To give, you know, just really greater clarity, we're proposing a simple amendment so that we can really nail this down and put this issue to bed once and for all," he said

In response, the Justice Department sent CBC a statement Monday saying the provincial government "is committed to openness and transparency." 

The final report of retired chief justice David B. Orsborn's review is expected by April, while the dispute between the information commissioner and the Department of Justice is going to court. Harvey said a court date has not yet been set.

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