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Freedom-of-information requests shunted to sidelines during virus crisis

Last Updated Mar 26, 2020 at 1:58 pm EDT

A sign warns people to social distance and keep at least 2 metres apart from one another due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus, as park rangers and others bike and walk on the seawall, in Vancouver, on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

OTTAWA — As government agencies across Canada focus strained resources on protecting people from COVID-19, efforts to respond to freedom-of-information requests from the public are slowing or even stopping altogether.

The federal government and all provinces and territories have laws that allow people to request access to records — from briefing notes to expense reports — held by ministries and other public bodies.

At least three large federal departments recently issued notices advising requesters their applications for information would be placed on hold due to COVID-19, though one soon backpedalled on the move.

Many public servants are working from home, making it difficult to retrieve and process records.

The federal ombudsman for requesters is asking institutions to take all reasonable measures to limit the effect on individuals’ right of access to information, and to advise people of the reduced capacity to process requests.

The office of Ontario’s information commissioner says the expectation to comply with the province’s access law remains in effect, but adds it understands that many organizations will be unable to meet the 30-day response requirement.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 26, 2020.

The Canadian Press

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