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Ontario government should consider cutting access to information fees: watchdog

Information and Privacy Commissioner Brian Beamish is seen with former commissioner Ann Cavoukian during questioning at a legislative committee probing the gas plant scandal June 25, 2013 in Toronto. .
Information and Privacy Commissioner Brian Beamish is seen with former commissioner Ann Cavoukian during questioning at a legislative committee probing the gas plant scandal June 25, 2013 in Toronto. . Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail/The Canadian Press

TORONTO — Ontario’s information and privacy commissioner says the province should consider reducing or eliminating some of the fees charged for access-to-information requests.

Brian Beamish released his annual report this week and he calls on the Liberal government to review the freedom of information and privacy legislation, as it has been nearly 30 years since the laws were enacted.

It would be a good idea to follow the federal government’s lead and look at reducing the fees people pay for access to information, he said.

READ MORE: Feds eliminate extra access-to-info fees

“I think that fees can act as a barrier to people accessing information,” Beamish said. “There may be a role for fees in limited circumstances, for example if a request requires a government organization to go to an inordinate amount of work to answer, then there may be a role for a fee there, but there’s certainly scope to reduce the fees that are charged.”

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Last month, Ottawa issued a directive that federal institutions waive all access to information fees, except for the initial $5 charge.

In 2014-15, federal institutions collected $56,168 in additional fees from information requesters, while in Ontario that amount in 2015 was about 10 times higher – $545,698.

A spokeswoman for Ontario’s minister of government and consumer services said the fees Ontario charges are in line with other provinces and it is not considering changes at this time.

READ MORE: Liberals pledge to strengthen info watchdog, but her funding’s at lowest point since 2009

Federally, the fees that were being charged were $2.50 for every 15 minutes of time per person spent searching for records, with the first five hours at no charge.

In Ontario, the fee is $7.50 for each 15 minutes of search time per person. The same fee is charged for each 15 minutes spent preparing a record for disclosure, including redacting information.

Lauren Souch, a spokeswoman for the minister of government and consumer services, said that unlike the federal government, the premier’s office and cabinet ministers’ offices are subject to freedom of information requests.

“Our government’s user fee system is in place in order to ensure we are protecting taxpayers,” she said. “The fees that are charged under the act have not been increased in 20 years and are decided by the independent, impartial public service – they are in line with other Canadian jurisdictions.”

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READ MORE: What you need to know about access-to-info reform

Beamish suggested that perhaps if a government ministry or agency misses the 30-day deadline to respond to a request, fees should be waived. Overall, about 82 per cent of the Ontario requests in 2015 received responses within 30 days, Beamish said.

The government also needs to address “public expectations about access to information and services online,” Beamish said. Most provincial requests still need to be printed off and mailed in with a $5 cheque.

“It varies from one institution to another, one government organization to another,” he said. “Some are still very paper based, but certainly we are moving to a world where people should be able to put in FOI requests by email or online through a portal and get their response the same way.”

Some provinces take requests by email and the federal government has an online platform, but the Ontario government said it has no plans to put its system online.