Privacy Law and Policy Reporter
A neighbour of the applicant wrote a letter of complaint about the applicant, which had been withheld by the Ministry of Transportation and Highways. The letter makes reference to activities of the applicant which the neighbour wanted the
Ministry to address. The Ministry submitted that disclosing the letter would constitute an unreasonable invasion of the privacy of the neighbour, contrary to s 22 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
The issue in this case was the extent to which a public body covered by the Act is obligated to disclose a letter of complaint about an individual, even if submitted in confidence by a third party. The Ministry withheld the letter. Protecting the identity of the writer was not at issue in this case: the applicant had requested the information in the complaint file about him, written by a third party whom he identified by name. The third party (neighbour) acknowledged having written a letter of complaint but refused to consent to its disclosure.
The Commissioner did not agree:
I am of the opinion that individuals have, and should have full rights of access to communications made about them to public bodies for the purposes of making a complaint, where those communications do not fall under the law enforcement exceptions of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act.
The Ministry argued that it was standard practice to keep complaint letters confidential. The Commissioner disagreed.
In my view, writers of letters of complaint should prepare their contents with a normal and realistic expectation that their views may become known to the persons they are complaining about, and the Ministry's past practice of refusing to disclose copies of letters of complaint to individuals complained about now needs to be reconsidered.
He added that 'the domains of law enforcement and whistle-blowing are clear exceptions to this generalised principle of openness'.