Archived - Access to Information Guidelines - General

This page has been archived on the Web

Information identified as archived is provided for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. It is not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards and has not been altered or updated since it was archived. Please contact us to request a format other than those available.

1. Introduction

These Guidelines assist in the interpretation of the Access to Information Act and the Access Regulations and provide the comprehensive framework under which government institutions administer this legislation. They describe legal and policy requirements and more detailed guidance and best practices for day-to-day administration of the Access to Information process. When Federal Court decisions have a bearing on how the Act should be administered, they are indicated in the text.

These Guidelines are intended primarily for use by Public Service employees administering the legislation. This should not, however, be viewed as a handbook for finding ways to refuse access to records. The Guidelines take a balanced approach in explaining how the legislation permits both the release and the denial of access to information which has been requested.

The Act clearly places the onus on government institutions to justify why particular records should not be disclosed. Only information which qualifies either as a Confidence of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada or falls within the limited and specific exemption criteria of the Act may be refused. While information may technically be in an exemptible category, it is government policy to release it when there is no need to withhold it. Canadians require access to a wide range of information about government. There is a compelling public interest in openness, to ensure that the government is fully accountable for its goals and that its performance can be measured against these goals. This renders the government more accountable to the electorate and facilitates informed public participation in the formulation of public policy. It ensures fairness in government decision-making and permits the airing and reconciliation of divergent views across the country. The Guidelines provide a basis for balancing this principle of openness with the need to protect particular state and private interests expressed in the exclusion and exemption provisions of the legislation.

2. Application

The Access to Information Act is an act of general application which was passed in June 1982 and proclaimed in force on July 1, 1983. All institutions listed in Schedule I to the Act are subject to its provisions. It prevails over other statutes, unless there is a statutory provision to the contrary. (An example of the latter are the overriding provisions of the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) Act). The Access to Information Act and Regulations are set out in Part 4.

3. Purpose of Legislation

Subsection 2(1) of the Access to Information Act creates an enforceable right of access to records under the control of a government institution in accordance with the principles that

  • government information should be available to the public;
  • necessary exceptions to the right of access should be limited and specific; and
  • decisions on disclosure of government information should be reviewed independently of government.

In administering this legislation it is very important to bear in mind these governing principles. In interpreting the Act, the Federal Court has stressed these principles, most notably in Maislin Industries Ltd. v. The Minister of Industry, Trade and Commerce et al [1984] 1 F.C. 939 at 942-943 where Jerome A.C.J. stated that "since the basic principle of these statutes is to codify the right of public access to Government information ... such public access ought not be frustrated by the courts except upon the clearest grounds so that doubt ought to be resolved in favour of disclosure".

4. Informal access

Subsection 2(2) of the Access to Information Act states that the Act is intended to complement and not replace existing procedures for obtaining government information and is not to limit in any way the type of information that is normally available to the general public.

Article 4.1 of the "Government Communications Policy", Communications Volume, Information and Administrative Management, Treasury Board Manual explicitly states that institutions should respond to public enquiries outside the Access to Information Act whenever it is possible to do so (i.e. no exemptions apply or only a cursory review of the records is required).

Section 68 of the Access to Information Act reinforces this statement by excluding published material, material available for purchase and other reference materials from the formal right of access on the expectation that this type of information will be made available by other means.

In this context "published" connotes a wide and general distribution of information so that it is made generally accessible or available to the public at large and not only to a special restricted segment of the public.

In order to facilitate the public in using or obtaining this material, institutions should ensure that adequate means of reference, such as catalogues and indexes of library, museum and non-governmental archival materials, and detailed listings of publications are available to the public as well as institutional guides and inventories of information holdings, where this is appropriate.

When an Access to Information request is for material which may be provided without recourse to the Act, the applicant should be informed that an Access request is not required and that the information is being provided in accordance with normal government practice. This means that the application fee is refunded and no access to information fees under the Access to Information Act are levied. However any other charges normally payable at the discretion of the institution would still apply.

Institutions should not refer applicants to the Access to Information Act for obtaining information solely on the basis that it provides the only means of assessing fees. Where there is significant demand for information which does not contain exempt material, such information should be made available for purchase in accordance with fee schedules established pursuant to other legal authorities (for guidance consult the Communications Volume , Information and Administrative Management, Treasury Board Manual).

Appendix A - Definitions

Access Coordinator (coordonnateur de l'accès à l'information)
is the officer for each government institution who coordinates all activities relating to the operation of the Act, and the regulations, directives and guidelines pursuant to it, within the institution.
Access request (demande officielle d'accès à l'information)
is a request that is made in writing to the government institution that has control of the record and that makes specific reference to the Act.
Access to Information Request Form (formule de demande d'accès à l'information)
means a form prescribed by the designated minister for the purpose of requesting access to records under the control of a government institution.
Applicant (auteur d'une demande)
is a person who is requesting access to records under the Act or who is exercising his or her rights under the Act to review by the Court.
Class of records (catégorie de documents)
is a category of information held by an institution, regardless of physical medium. It reflects particular subjects related to a specific function or functions of an organizational unit of a government institution. Classes are described under the section "Information Holdings" in the public database, Info Source to facilitate knowledge of government information holdings and the exercise of the right of access under the Act.
Complainant (plaignant)
is a person who makes a complaint to the Information Commissioner on any of the grounds set forth in subsection 30(1) of the Act.
Court (cour)
means the Federal Court-Trial Division.
Designated Minister (ministre désigné)
for the purposes of the Act is the President of the Treasury Board.
Excluded information (renseignements exclus)
means information to which the Act does not apply and consists of published material or material available for purchase by the public; library or museum material made or acquired and preserved solely for public reference or exhibition purposes; material placed in the National Archives, the National Library or the National Museums of Canada by or on behalf of persons or organizations other than government institutions; and confidences of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada.
Exemption (exception)
is a provision of the Act which entitles the head of the institution to refuse to disclose information in response to a request received under the Act. Each exemption is discussed in detail in Chapter 2-8 of these Guidelines.
Foreign state (état étranger)
means any state other than Canada.
Government institution (institution fédérale)
means any federal government department, ministry of state, body or office listed in Schedule I to the Access to Information Act. Whenever the term ,government institution- is referred to in these Guidelines, responsibility for the decisions involved lies either with the head of the institution or an official of the institution delegated by the head to make such decisions.
Greater interest (davantage concernée)
an institution has greater interest in a record if the record was originally produced in or for the institution, or in the case of a record not originally produced in or for a government institution, the institution was the first to receive the record or a copy of it.
Head (responsable)
of a government institution is the minister for a department or ministry of state or, in any other case, the person designated by order in council to be the head of the institution for the purpose of the Act.
Information Commissioner (commissaire à l'information)
is an official appointed under the Act who has the powers of an ombudsman. The role and functions of the Commissioner are set forth in Chapter 2-9 of these Guidelines.
Info Source (Info source)
is the publication produced by the designated minister in accordance with subsection 5(1) of the Act. It contains details of the organization, programs, functions and information holdings of government institutions.
Manual (manuel)
is any set of directives, instructions, guidelines or procedures used by employees in administering or carrying out any operational programs or activities of a government institution.
Record (document)
means any information contained in any physical medium which is capable of preserving such information and includes any information contained in the original and any copy of correspondence, memoranda, forms, directives, reports, drawings, diagrams, cartographic and architectural items, pictorial and graphic works, photographs, films, microforms, sound recordings, video-tapes, video-disks and video-cassettes, punched, magnetic and other cards, paper and magnetic tapes, magnetic disks and drums, holographs, optic sense sheets, working papers, and any other documentary material, including drafts, or electro-magnetic medium, regardless of physical form and characteristics. (This definition elaborates upon the definition contained in section 3 of the Act.) Also, for purposes of the Act, a record includes a machine readable record which does not exist but which can be produced from an existing machine readable record using computer hardware and software and technical expertise normally used by the institution (see sub-section 4(3) of the Act).
Representative (représentant)
means a person authorized by an applicant or complainant to act on his or her behalf.
Third party (tiers)
means any person, group of persons or organization other than the person that made the request or a government institution listed in Schedule I of the Act.
Under the control (relever de)
A record is under the control of a government institution when that institution is authorized to grant or deny access to the record, to govern its use and, subject to the approval of the National Archivist, to dispose of it. Regarding the question of physical possession, a record held by an institution, whether at headquarters, regional, satellite or other office, either within or outside Canada, is presumed to be under its control unless there is evidence to the contrary. A record held elsewhere on behalf of an institution is also under its control. Personal or political papers of a minister and ministerial records not relating to the administration or operation of the institution for which the minister is responsible and which are kept separate and apart from institutional files are not under the control of the institution.