Teresa Scassa - Blog

The report of an investigator for Ontario’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) into personal information contained within a published tribunal decision adds to the debate around how to balance individual privacy with the open courts principle. In this case (Privacy Complaint No. PC17-9), the respondent is the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal (OHRT), established under the Ontario Human Rights Code. The OHRT often hears matters involving highly sensitive personal information. Where an adjudicator considers it relevant to their decision, they may include this information in their written reasons. Although a party may request that the decision be anonymized to protect their personal information, OHRT adjudicators have been sparing in granting requests for anonymization, citing the importance of the open courts principle.

The OIPC investigated after receiving a complaint about the reporting of sensitive personal information in an OHRT decision. The interesting twist in this case was that the personal information at issue was not that of the person who had complained to the OHRT (the ‘OHRT complainant’), and whose complaint had led to the tribunal hearing. Rather, it was the personal information of the OHRT complainant’s sister and mother. The complaint to the OIPC was made by the sister (the ‘OIPC complainant’) on behalf of herself and her mother. Although the sister’s and mother’s names were not used in the OHRT decision, they argued that they were easily identifiable since they lived in a small town and shared a distinctive surname with the OHRA complainant. The OIPC investigator agreed. She noted that the information at the heart of the complaint consisted of “the applicant’s name, the applicant’s mother’s age, the mother’s primary language, the number of medications the applicant’s mother was taking, the reason for the medication, the state of the mother’s memory and the city the complainant resides in.” (at para 19). The investigator found that although the names of the OIPC complainant and her mother were not mentioned, their relationship to the OHRT complainant was. She observed: “Given that the applicant’s name is available, the uniqueness of the names and the size of the community, it is reasonable to assume that someone reading the decision would be able to identify her mother and sister and connect the information in the decision to them.” (at para 26)

Since the OHRT is a public body, and the information at issue was personal information, the OIPC complainant argued that the OHRT had breached the province’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) by publishing this information in its decision. For its part, the OHRT argued that the information was exempted from the application of FIPPA under s. 37 of that Act because it was “personal information that is maintained for the purpose of creating a record that is available to the general public”. It argued that it has an adjudicative mandate under the Human Rights Code and that the Statutory Powers Procedures Act (SPPA) permits it to determine its own practices and procedures. Although neither the OHRC nor the SPPA address the publication of decisions, the OHRT had decided that as a matter of practice, its decisions would be published, including on the public legal information website CanLII. The OHRT also argued that its proceedings were subject to the open courts principle. This argument was supported by the recent Ontario Superior Court decision (discussed here) which confirmed that the open courts principle applied to the decisions of statutory tribunals. The investigator agreed with the OHRT. She observed that “[o]penness at tribunals tends to improve the quality of testimony and for that reason is conducive to the pursuit of truth in adjudicative proceedings.” (at para 56). She noted as well that the other elements of the open courts principle, including “oversight of decision-makers, the integrity of the administration of justice, and the educational and democracy-enhancing features of open courts” (at para 57) were all linked to the Charter value of freedom of expression. She accepted that the publication of reasons for decision was part of the openness principle, and concluded that: “The publication of decisions is an aspect of the Tribunal’s control over its own process and the information that is included in the Tribunal’s decisions is within the adjudicator’s discretion in providing reasons for those decisions.” (at para 65) She noted that many public values were served by the publication of the Tribunal’s decisions: “The publication of its decisions supports public confidence in the justice system, serves an educational purpose, promotes accountability by the Tribunal for its decision-making, and ensures that the public has the information necessary to exercise the Charter right to freedom of expression.” (at para 66) As a result, she concluded that s. 37 of FIPPA excluded the published decisions from the application of the privacy provisions of the Act.

This seems like an appropriate conclusion given the legislative framework. However, it does raise two general points of importance with respect to how the OHRT deals with personal information in its decisions. First, human rights legislation exists in an attempt to provide recourse and redress for those who experience discrimination in contexts which closely affect their lives, such as employment, accommodation, and the receipt of services. The prohibited grounds of discrimination are ones which touch on highly personal and intimate aspects of peoples’ lives, relating to sexual identity, national origin, religion, and mental or physical disability, to provide but a few examples. Personal information of this kind is generally considered highly sensitive. The spectre that it will be published – online – alongside an individual’s name, might be daunting enough to prevent some from seeking redress under the legislation at all. For example, fear that the online publication of one’s mental health information might make it difficult to find future employment could prevent a person from filing of a complaint of discrimination. This would seem to subvert the purpose of human rights legislation. And yet, human rights tribunals have been reticent in granting requests for anonymization, citing the open courts principle.

Secondly, this case raises the further issue of how the sensitive personal information of third parties – who were neither witness before the tribunal or complainants to the OHRC – ended up in a decision published online, and for which the Tribunal had refused an anonymization request. The OIPC investigator concluded her report by recommending that the OHRT “continue to apply data minimization principles in the drafting of its decisions and include only personal information necessary to achieve the purpose of those decisions.” (at para 72) In the absence of clear directives for dealing with the online publication of personal information in court or tribunal decisions, and appropriate training for adjudicators, this gentle reminder seems to be the best that complainants can hope for. It is not good enough. One need only recall the complaints to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada about the offshore website that had scraped decisions from CanLII and court websites in order to make them available in fully indexable form over the internet, to realize that we have important unresolved issues about how personal information is published and disseminated in court and tribunal decisions in Canada.

Published in Privacy

Canadian Trademark Law

Published in 2015 by Lexis Nexis

Canadian Trademark Law 2d Edition

Buy on LexisNexis

Electronic Commerce and Internet Law in Canada, 2nd Edition

Published in 2012 by CCH Canadian Ltd.

Electronic Commerce and Internet Law in Canada

Buy on CCH Canadian

Intellectual Property for the 21st Century

Intellectual Property Law for the 21st Century:

Interdisciplinary Approaches

Purchase from Irwin Law