Access to information is showing worrying delays in Quebec, according to the Commission

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Access to information is showing worrying delays in Quebec, according to the Commission

In Quebec, the average processing time for an access to information request is 24 days, which is longer than the law provides, according to a study conducted with 33 organizations.

In Quebec, responses to access to information requests frequently exceed the time limits prescribed by law, “a major problem », according to the Commission d'accès à l'information, which conducted a study with some thirty organizations.

Released this week, the report compiles data provided by 33 organizations: ministries, municipalities, hospitals and police services. The study covers the period 2018-2021, i.e. before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Commission makes 25 findings. The first goes as follows: the average processing time for an access to information request – non-pandemic – is 24 days. This is more than what the Act respecting access to documents held by public bodies and the protection of personal information provides.

From the date a request is received, an organization has 20 calendar days to provide a response.

An additional delay of up to 10 calendar days is possible, in which case the organization must notify the applicant in writing.

This is not an automatic additional delay, warns the Commission, for whom the portrait that emerges from this study is cause for concern.

“Many organizations have an average turnaround time of over 20 or even 30 days, which translates by exceeding the 20-day deadline for approximately 30% of requests. »

Getting access in good time : overview of processing times for access requests in Quebec

The dunce of the group is the Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEES): 80% of access requests were processed there out of time. The Integrated University Health and Social Services Center (CIUSSS) of the East-of-the-Island of Montreal and the Jewish General Hospital follow him closely.

Jean-François Roberge, Minister of Education in the previous government of François Legault, is now responsible for Access to Information and the Protection of Personal Information. Contacted by Radio-Canada.ca, Mr. Roberge's office says it will take the time to analyze the study and all of the recommendations.

Delays in obtaining documents have real repercussions on the population, the Commission says. For example, insurance compensation may be delayed due to a missing accident report; the public may be late informed of an environmental issue due to a delay in processing a journalist's request.

To ensure compliance with legal response deadlines, the Commission d'accès à l'information reiterates the recommendation, made in 2011 to the Government of Quebec, to foresee consequences for organizations that lag behind.

It also recommends that an organization bear the burden of demonstrating the exceptional circumstances under which it was unable to respond within the strict time limit provided.

Other recommendation made to the government of the Coalition avenir Québec (CAQ): improve accountability in terms of access to information.

Of the 3,000 organizations subject to the Act respecting access, only government departments and agencies are required to report annually on the handling of information requests.

Other categories of organizations are exempt: hospitals, schools, cities and professional orders.

However, transparency can bear witness to the health of a democratic society, says the Commission, which recommends that all public bodies (subject to the law) be obliged to provide it with data. And this, in a single database. Because, for the moment, the available data is disparate and difficult to compare, which complicates the task of assessing the state of the information access system.

Good news in this flood of reviews: a quarter of the organizations that participated in the study show a good performance in terms of meeting deadlines. They have in common to have implemented the digital management of their documents, to have structured their processes, to have good communication practices and to have appointed a person in charge of requests for ;access which has a strategic position within the organization.

“Many organizations have an average processing time of more than 20 or even 30 days, which translates into exceeding the 20-day deadline for approximately 30% of requests”, according to the study entitled “Have access in good time: profile of processing times for access requests in Quebec.”

The Commission has received a historical number of requests for review for reasons of lack of response within the legal deadlines. For the past two years, these have represented almost a third of all appeals of this type.

Clearly, when an applicant does not get a response from an organization within the legal deadline, this is equivalent to a refusal, according to the law. He can therefore file a request for review with the Commission within 30 calendar days of the expiry of the deadline for responding.

The Commission then sends a letter to the body in question, asking it to produce its response. In the vast majority of cases, this response is sent shortly after, without any additional steps.

In terms of exceeding response times, the pandemic has not helped, in particular due to the shift to teleworking which has had a major impact on the processing of requests.

During the first year of the health crisis, processing times increased for about half of public bodies, and particularly for those processing a large volume of requests.

Overall, the average processing time approached 30 days; a third of organizations [twice as many as in previous years] also reported an average processing time of over 30 days.

“While it also recognizes the problem of increasing complexity of requests mentioned by the organizations, which is not necessarily due to the pandemic, the Commission considers that it is their responsibility to take the necessary steps to avoid exceeding deadlines. »

Getting access in good time : overview of processing times for access requests in Quebec

Considered avant-garde when it was adopted in 1982, the law badly needs an overhaul, according to the Professional Federation of Journalists of Quebec (FPJQ), which is urging it. The problems noted by the Commission have existed for many years, deplores journalist Marie-Ève ​​Martel, vice-president of the FPJQ, in the weekly newsletter of the Federation.

Improving the law, and consequently the Quebec system of access to information, is first and foremost a question of political will. Unfortunately, access to information is often relayed very low in the list of priorities.

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