In 1982, a Quebec law called the Act respecting Access to documents held by public bodies and the Protection of personal information was adopted. Since then, organizations in the public sector have had to give citizens access to certain kinds of information.
Can I have access to some kinds of documents held by public bodies?
Yes. The purpose of the Act respecting Access to documents held by public bodies and the Protection of personal information is to give people maximum access to information held by public bodies. That is why we tend to refer to it as “access to information”.
However, the information must be in some kind of physical document: written text, visual, audio, computerized, etc.
What is a “public” body?
These organizations covered by this law include the following:
- provincial government departments and agencies
- municipalities and municipal bodies, urban communities and their agencies and regional county municipalities (MRCs)
- school boards, private colleges that receive government funding, CEGEPs and universities
- hospitals, residential centres, CLSCs, integrated health and social services centres, and youth centres
What kind of information and documents can I get?
The basic rule is that you have a right to any document held by a public body, no matter what format it is in. However, you cannot have the information if it is not in some kind of physical format.
Here is an example: you cannot require someone to verbally tell you what was said during a meeting of a public body. However, you would have a right to see minutes (written record) of this meeting. If the meeting was taped on audiocassette, you could also get the recording.
Here are some examples of documents that people often ask to see:
- financial statements
- minutes of meetings
What do I have to do to get a document held by a public body?
You should send a written request to the public body. You request doesn’t have to be in writing, but it is a good idea to put it in written. That way, if you are refused a document and you want to challenge the refusal, you will have written evidence of your request.
Your request must be addressed to the person in charge of granting access to documents for that particular body. You can get the name and contact information of this person on the website of the Commission d’accès à l’information, by calling the Commission or by calling Services Québec.
You can sometimes consult the documents directly at the offices of the public body rather than requesting copies. Contact the person in charge of access to documents to find out the most convenient time for you to visit. By law, this person must help you identify the document likely to have the information you are looking for.
Once the public body has received your request, it must reply within 20 days. In some cases, it can extend this time limit, but it has to notify you in advance.
If I am refused access or don’t get an answer, can I challenge the decision?
Yes, but only if you made your request in writing.
If your request was in writing and the public body refuses access or does not reply within the time limit, you can ask the Commission d’accès à l’information to review the decision.
A request for a review must be made within 30 days of the decision to refuse access, or 30 days of the end of the time limit to reply.
You must be informed of the reasons for refusing access to a document. The public body must also help you understand those reasons if you ask them to.
Are there exceptions to the right to access to information?
Yes, the law creates several exceptions.
For example, you cannot access information if revealing it would have a negative impact on intergovernmental relations, on negotiations between public bodies, on the administration of justice or on public security.
Also, you can be refused access to certain types of documents, including legal opinions, recommendations, personal notes written on a document, sketches, drafts of documents, documents protected by professional secrecy, confidential personal information, etc.
The Commission d’accès à l’information can also allow a public body to refuse to answer repetitious requests, requests that are abusive, obviously improper or made in bad faith (merely meant to disturb).
There are also other exceptions under the law.
It is important to know that the public body can refuse access to a part of a document requested while giving you access to the rest. Usually, the parts that you are not allowed to see will be blacked out so you can’t read them
If you think that the refusal to allow you access is not justified, you can ask for the Commission d’accès à l’information to review the decision.
Do I have to pay to get documents?
Access to documents is free, but if you want copies, you might have to pay for photocopying, mailing or transcription. The public body must tell you in advance roughly how much it will cost per document.
You can get a detailed list of fees from the Commission d’accès à l’information.
What about federal government bodies?
There is also a law at the federal level that gives the public access to information in federal records. It is called the Access to Information Act. Contact the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada for more information.