The Commission d’accès à l’information has ruled against granting McGill the discretionary power to deny Access to Information (ATI) requests. The Oct. 7 ruling comes after McGill submitted a motion last December asking for the ability to deny ATI requests that it deemed “overly broad” or “frivolous,” saying that an increased number of ATI requests were costing the university money and reducing efficiency.
The Commission is a government agency that oversees the application of laws regarding access to documents held by public bodies. Normally, public institutions like McGill can only deny ATI requests on a case-by-case basis by filing an application to refuse the request to the Commission.
Last week’s verdict is part of a pre-mediation process. The second part of McGill’s motion, which asks to deny 19 specific ATI requests submitted by 14 McGill students and alumni in 2012, will be under consideration in a mediation process expected to begin on Nov. 27.
The case will continue to trial if a settlement cannot be reached through mediation.
McGill’s Secretary-General Stephen Strople said McGill cannot make further comments on the matter while it remains before the courts.
“We are disappointed by today’s ruling and we are considering our options regarding an appeal,” Strople said. “This ruling does not resolve the issues. We are, however, encouraged by the fact that both sides remain interested in seeking a mediated settlement.”
Kevin Paul, a McGill law student and one of the students named in the case, said he doubts that the respondents will be able to find an acceptable outcome to the case in the mediation process. He pointed to the political nature of the ATIs that McGill is seeking to deny, many of which regard information on the university’s alleged links to resource extraction projects and military research, as potential reasons for McGill’s actions.
“Even with parts of McGill’s motion thrown out, its legal action is so far-reaching that it would need to back down on a wide array of points for an agreement to come through mediation,” Paul said. “We will not accept the denial of legitimate requests for information simply because the information may be inconvenient politically for the administration.”
McGill’s original motion outlines its reasons for requesting to deny the ATI requests.
“The scope of documents and information requested by the respondents is unreasonable, each request often representing hundreds, if not thousands of pages, and spanning a time period of often more than 10 years,” the original motion reads. “McGill does not have the resources to process many of the individual requests.”
Paul said he anticipates pursuing the matter until a resolution is reached.
“McGill has already gone to such great lengths—and spent so much of students’ tuition money on legal fees in the process—to prevent access to information that it seems somewhat unlikely that it would let up in this fight,” Paul said. “I can’t speak for everyone involved in the case, but I expect we will do what is necessary to see this through. That means seeing whether we can reach an acceptable mediated resolution, and if not, proceeding to trial.”
Richard Kurland, a Vancouver-based lawyer with experience in ATI cases, said that this pre-trial ruling offers the respondents an opportunity to re-submit requests that McGill may find more manageable.
“The parties are at square one,” Kurland said. “McGill cannot prohibit more requests, and the students can get it right this time and give new requests to access the things they need from McGill.”