The Supreme Court of Canada has issued a relatively rare decision on the interpretation of Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA). Although it involves fairly technical facts that are quite specific to the banking and mortgage context, the broader significance of the case lies in the Court’s approach to implied consent under PIPEDA.
The case arose in the context of the Royal Bank of Canada’s (RBC) attempt to obtain a mortgage discharge statement for property owned by two individuals (the Trangs), who defaulted on a loan advanced by the bank. The mortgage was registered against a property in Toronto, on which Scotiabank held the first mortgage. In order to recover the money owed to it, RBC sought a judicial sale of the property, but the sheriff would not carry out the sale without the mortgage discharge statement. Scotiabank refused to provide this statement to RBC on the basis that it contained the Trangs’ personal information and it could therefore not be disclosed to RBC without the Trangs’ consent.
PIPEDA allows for the disclosure of personal information without consent in a number of different circumstances. Three of these, raised by lawyers for RBC, include where it is for the purpose of collecting a debt owed by the individual to the organization; where the disclosure is required by a court order; and where the disclosure is required by law. Ultimately, the Court only considered the second of these exceptions. Because Scotiabank refused to disclose the discharge statement, RBC had applied to a court for a court order that would enable disclosure without consent. However, it found itself caught in a procedural loop – it seemed to be asking the court to order disclosure on the basis of a court order which the court had yet to grant. Although the Court of Appeal had found the court order exception to be inapplicable because of this circularity, the Supreme Court of Canada swept aside these objections in favour of a more pragmatic approach. Justice Côté found that the court had the power to make an order and felt that an order was appropriate in the circumstances. She ruled that it would be “overly formalistic and detrimental to access to justice” to require RBC to reformulate its request for a court order in a new proceeding.
Although this would have been enough to decide the matter, Justice Côté, for the unanimous court, went on to find that the Trangs had given implied consent to the disclosure of the mortgage statement in any event. Under PIPEDA, consent can be implied in some circumstances. Express consent is generally required where information is sensitive in nature. Acknowledging that financial information is generally considered highly sensitive, Justice Côté nevertheless found that in this case the mortgage discharge statement was less sensitive in nature. She stated that “the degree of sensitivity of specific financial information is a contextual determination.” (at para 36) Here, the context included the fact that a great deal of mortgage-related financial information is already in the public domain by virtue of the Land Titles Registry, which includes details such as the amount of a mortgage recorded against the property, the interest rate, payment periods and due date. Although the balance left owing on a mortgage is not provided in the Registry, it can still be roughly calculated by anyone interested in doing so. Justice Côté characterized the current balance of a mortgage as “a snapshot at a point in time in the life of a publicly disclosed mortgage.” (at para 39)
Justice Côté’s implied consent analysis was also affected by other contextual considerations. These included the fact that the party seeking disclosure of the discharge statement had an interest in it; as a creditor, it was relevant to them. According to the Court, the reasonable expectations of the individual with respect to the sensitivity of any information must be assessed in “the whole context” so as not to “unduly prioritize privacy interests over the legitimate business concerns that PIPEDA was also designed to reflect”. (at para 44) The fact that other creditors have a legitimate business interest in the information in a mortgage disclosure statement is “a relevant part of the context which informs the reasonable expectation of privacy.” (at para 45) In this regard, Justice Côté observed that the identity of the party seeking disclosure of the information and the reason for which they are seeking disclosure are relevant considerations. She noted that “[d]isclosure to a person who requires the information to exercise an established legal right is clearly different from disclosure to a person who is merely curious or seeks the information for nefarious purposes.” (at para 46)
Justice Côté also found that the reasonable mortgagor in the position of the Trangs would be aware of the public nature of the details of their mortgage, and would be aware as well that if they defaulted on either their mortgage or their loan with RBC, their mortgaged property could be seized and sold. They would also be aware that a judgment creditor would have a “legal right to obtain disclosure of the mortgage discharge statement through examination or by bringing a motion.” (at para 47)
It seems that it is the fact that RBC could ultimately legally get access to the mortgage discharge statement, viewed within the broader context that drives the Court to find that there is an implied consent to the disclosure of this information – even absent a court order. The Court’s finding of implied consent is nevertheless limited to this context; it would not be reasonable for a bank to disclose a mortgage discharge statement to anyone other than a person with a legal interest in the property to which the mortgage relates. The Court’s reasoning seems to be that since RBC is ultimately entitled to get this information and has legal means at its disposal to get the information, then the Trangs can be considered to have consented to the information being shared.
Pragmatism is often a good thing, and it is easy to be sympathetic to the Court’s desire to not create expensive legal hurdles to achieve inevitable ends in transactions that are relatively commonplace. It should be noted, however, that the same result could have been achieved by the addition of a clause in the mortgage documents that would effectively obtain the consent of any mortgagor to disclosures of this kind and in those circumstances. No doubt after the earlier decisions in this case and in the related Citi Cards Canada Inc. v. Pleasance, banks had already taken steps to address this in their mortgage documents. One of the reasons for having privacy policies is to require institutions to explain to their customers what personal information is collected, how it will be used, and in what circumstances it will be disclosed. While it is true that few people read such privacy policies, they are at least there for those who choose to do so. Nobody reads implied terms because they are… well, implied. Implied consent works where certain uses or disclosures are relatively obvious. In more complicated transactions implied consent should be sparingly relied upon.
It will be interesting to see what impact the Court’s judicial eye roll to the facts of this case will have in other circumstances where consent to disclosure is an issue. The Court is cautious enough in its contextual approach that it may not lead to a dangerous undermining of consent. Nevertheless, there is a risk that the almost exasperated pragmatism of the decision may cause a more general relaxation around consent.