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Greenleaf, Graham --- "Inquiry: Disclosure of informing doctor's name (BC)" [1994] PrivLawPRpr 145; (1994) 1(10) Privacy Law & Policy Reporter 191

Inquiry: Disclosure of informing doctor's name (BC)

Information and Privacy Commissioner, British Columbia (Commissioner Flaherty), Inquiry re: A request for access to the identity of the author of a letter to the motor vehicle branch of the Ministry of Transportation and Highways Order No 28-1994, 8 November 1994

Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (BC) - disclosure of identity of informant doctor - disclosures which may threaten a person's safety - compulsorily-acquired information - information obtained in confidence

A doctor wrote a letter to the Motor Vehicle Branch expressing concerns about the applicant's ability to drive safely. The applicant was subsequently refused a driver's licence. The applicant requested access to his file held by the Ministry, and the text of the letter from the doctor was disclosed but the doctor's identity was not disclosed. The applicant requested a review by the Commissioner.

The Commissioner held that the Ministry was entitled to refuse to disclose the doctor's identity on the basis that 'the disclosure could reasonably be expected to (a) threaten anyone else's safety ...'

(s 19(1)(a)). The Commissioner found that the doctor had 'legitimate reasons to fear a vengeful response if his or her identity is revealed'. He rejected the applicant's argument that the doctor must provide evidence of 'actual violent behaviour', holding that their only need be evidence of potential violence, and that the standard of proof required is that of a balance of probabilities. He said 'I intend to act prudently with respect to possible violence and hostile behaviour'.

The Commissioner therefore did not make any final decision concerning the Ministry's alternative argument that the doctor was a 'confidential source of law enforcement information' (s 15(1)(d)). He found that there was 'no explicit evidence before me that the information in dispute was provided and received in confidence', even though the motor vehicle branch treated such information as confidential. However, the Commissioner was more persuaded of the confidentiality of such information by the fact that there was a statutory obligation on medical practitioners to report to the superintendent of the motor vehicle branch in relation to any patients who, in the doctor's opinion, had a medical condition which made it dangerous for them to drive and who had been warned of this. The Commissioner noted that 'the fact that the obligation to report is sometimes mandatory offers more reason for keeping the information confidential'.

The Commissioner recommended that the motor vehicle branch develop a set of guidelines under Pt 3 of the Act, setting out fair information practices in relation to the disclosure of the identity of 'informants' about medically-unfit drivers, as the branch's existing Guide for Physicians might not properly reflect the requirements of the Act.

Comment

The disclosure of the identity of 'complainants' and 'informants' is a difficult issue in many jurisdictions. (see (1994) 1 PLPR 91 (NZ), (1994) 1 PLPR 91, 92 (NSW)).

The Commissioner's approach to the implications of the compulsory acquisition of personal information for the operation of 'confidential source' exemptions to freedom of information legislation is similar to that taken by the Supreme Court of SA in Bray v Workers Rehabilitation and Compensation Corporation (1994) 1 PLPR 130 (applying the approach taken by the High Court in Johns v ASC (1994) 1 PLPR 10).

Graham Greenleaf


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