Nova Scotia

A brief guide to Nova Scotia's freedom of information law

Nova Scotia's information and privacy commissioner released her annual report Tuesday, highlighting flaws in privacy breach reporting. But the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act also can help citizens access publicly owned information that's not readily available.

Law meant to 'ensure public bodies are fully accountable to the public'

The law can help 'ensure public bodies are fully accountable to the public.' (Shutterstock/Mmaxer)

Nova Scotia's information and privacy commissioner released her annual report Tuesday, highlighting flaws in privacy breach reporting.

But the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act can also help citizens access publicly owned information that's not readily available.

Maybe you want to know what a councillor buys for dinner on business trips, how university administrators decided on that residence security policy, or the workplace safety history the Labour Department has compiled on a business. 

Here's a quick tip sheet to use the act meant to "ensure that public bodies are fully accountable to the public":

A) Decide what you want 

Identify what documents — these could include electronic records or databases — might answer your question.

The act offers access to documents that already exist. If you're stuck, each government department or body by law has an information access and privacy officer, who can help you figure out what documents might contain the answer. 

B) File an application

Fill out an application form or write a letter. You don't need to identify or explain why you're looking for the information. Be as specific as possible, whether you're asking for a full database or an email sent last Tuesday. File multiple requests if you're looking for information from several departments.

If you're filing for information on yourself, be sure to include your date of birth. The act also protects against unauthorized collection or access of your personal information, while giving you the right to see what's there about yourself.

C) Pay

Send a cheque for $5, the application fee in Nova Scotia. No more can be charged to file.

The department may send you a further fee estimate, depending on the work required to process your request. This can be negotiated by narrowing your request. You also can file a fee waiver, for example, if you can make an argument for financial difficulty or that the information is in the public interest to release. 

Ask for a detailed list to prove what's costing the money before paying, and then again after it's processed.

D) Wait

The public body has 30 days to reply to your request, but can take longer to fill it — and will even ask for time extensions.

Around 36 per cent of requests to the Nova Scotia government missed the 30-day reply benchmark, according to a Newspapers Canada analysis of the act's effectiveness.

What you get back might not be everything.

The act includes a host of reasons the department can withhold information. For example, if the information infringes on personal privacy or if the head of a public body thinks the information could mean financial loss or gain for a person or group.

E) Review

These delays or decisions to withhold information can be appealed to the commissioner for review, but her orders are non-binding.

For example, the commissioner's office reported Tuesday it asked the Department of Community Services to release "significantly more information" in 11 requests by former foster children. 

The department "only partially accepted my recommendations," commissioner Catherine Tully said, but it did indeed release more in the end, thanks to the reviews. 

These reviews can take years, as well.

About the Author

Rachel Ward

Journalist

Rachel Ward is a journalist with the Fifth Estate. You can reach her with questions or story ideas at rachel.ward@cbc.ca.

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