Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia Appeal Court upholds power of ombudsman's office

Nova Scotia’s highest court has reaffirmed the power of the ombudsman’s office to investigate allegations against government departments and agencies.

Three-member panel rules government 'will be held to account for its breach'

The Appeal Court ruled the government, like the citizens they serve, are bound by the rule of law. (Robert Short/CBC)

Nova Scotia's highest court has reaffirmed the power of the provincial ombudsman's office to investigate allegations against government departments and agencies.

In a decision released Wednesday, the Appeal Court ruled the ombudsman's office has the authority to receive unredacted records from the Department of Health and Wellness, after the province had objected to releasing the documents in full.

The ombudsman and the Health Department had asked the Appeal Court to settle a dispute arising from an investigation.

The ombudsman is looking into complaints about Adult Protection Services, which is part of the Health Department.

The investigation involves the treatment of a man identified in court documents as A.B. He's an adult with physical and mental health issues.

Ombudsman's power a 'potent force'

The ombudsman requested all of the department's files related to A.B., including notes, reports and assessments.

Ombudsman Bill Smith said what his investigators received was so heavily redacted, it was of no use.

Ombudsman Bill Smith says it has been a tough fight, and he will now demand the unredacted records. (Nova Scotia Office of the Ombudsman)

The two sides had been going back and forth for months, with the province claiming it couldn't release the information in order to protect A.B.'s privacy.

Lawyers for the province also claimed other legislation trumps the authority granted to investigators under the ombudsman legislation. The Court of Appeal disagreed.

"The ombudsman's authority is a potent force which acts as part of a system of legislative checks and balances on the proper functioning of our democratic institutions," Justice Jamie Saunders wrote for the three-member panel.

"The ombudsman's oversight reminds both government and its bureaucracy that they — like the citizens they serve — are bound by the rule of law, and will be held to account for its breach."

Investigators will demand unredacted records

Smith said it has been a tough fight.

"I could say there was a certain level of indifference," he said in an interview Wednesday. "Or if I was being blunt, I could say there was a certain level of arrogance."

Smith said this case is not typical of the level of co-operation his office receives from the government.

He also said the court ruling will have broad ramifications for the scope of his office's operations.

With the ruling in hand, Smith said his investigators will now go back to government and demand that the records be released in full.

He said he could not predict how long the investigation would take from this point.

About the Author

Blair Rhodes

Reporter

Blair Rhodes has been a journalist for more than 35 years, the last 27 with CBC. His primary focus is on stories of crime and public safety. He can be reached at blair.rhodes@cbc.ca

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