Tips on Dealing with Multiple Requests from the Same Applicant
In the access to information world, there are some applicants that make many access requests to the same public body. The majority of time, the applicants are legitimately exercising their right to know. However, in the rare case, these access requests can become frivolous or vexatious.
Regardless of the intentions of the applicant, the volume and timing of multiple access requests or requests for reviews from one applicant can be overwhelming to both the public body and our office.
As an analyst here at the IPC, I have never had to process an access request. I am very thankful for this, because of what I hear, some of them can be quite challenging. That means I am not an expert on processing access requests at the public body level. The Access and Privacy Branch at the Ministry of Justice, however, has resources to assist all public bodies on managing access requests.
So, I guess at this point you are probably wondering why I am writing this blog. I have useful tips for multiple requests from the same individual which will pay off when some of these requests come to our office for review.
As we sit here at the end of the access request process, my colleagues and I have seen some practices that have, from time to time, caused problems for all involved in this process (public bodies, applicants and the IPC). Here are some tips that may be useful to us all in the future:
Each entity tends to add on a file name to each access request. The applicant might start by naming or numbering his/her requests, then the public body receives it and usually assigns it a unique identifier, then it comes to our office as a review and we will also assign a file number. Sometimes lawyers are also involved and assign their own file name. As a result, one access request could have up to 4 file names. This may surprise you, but I believe this is very necessary.
The danger lies where a public body relies on the numbering system of the applicant. In general, applicants don’t have the same administrative supports that public bodies and our office have. Relying on an applicant’s naming system can lead to confusion, repetition of work and sometimes section 7 response problems.
I know more than anyone that keeping all these file numbers straight is tedious – but it’s important. By the way, my New Year’s resolution is to mark everyone’s file numbers on all my correspondence. Sorry if I haven’t done this in the past.
Sometimes an applicant will put a long enumerated list of requests into one access request.
Applicants: Please stop doing that! It would be helpful in the long run if you could make every item a separate request. It will also help you if fees are applied because the Acts allow a certain amount of free search and preparation time for each request. Maximize your savings! That being said, if some requests are very similar to each other, it may be reasonable for the public body to amalgamate them together and treat them as one request.
Public bodies: If a list of multiple requests comes in one request, it is ok to break it down and treat each one as a separate request with a separate file name. They will all have been received on the same day and will have the same deadlines. It will be less confusing if it comes to our office as one review. Imagine how confusing it would get if we had to do a review on exemptions on items 3, 6 and 12 and a fee review on items 5, 10 and 32. Of course, this is just a suggestion.
Often public bodies will need to go back to the applicant after an access request is received to get clarification. When multiple requests are in play, clarification can often mean that requests are combined or overlap. It goes without saying that it is important to document and communicate these discussions. It helps the public body and the applicants stay on the same page. And it helps our office get up to speed in the event of a review.
A Word About Frivolous and Vexatious Requests
Just because an applicant makes a large volume of requests – or a large volume of requests all at once – does not automatically mean that they are frivolous or vexatious or not made in good faith. Our office has only issued one report on frivolous or vexatious requests (Review Report F-2010-002). In that case, the applicant was making multiple and consistent requests that were highly similar to each other. Also, currently, our legislation only permits the Commissioner to refuse to conduct or refuse a review. In other words, public bodies are still stuck with responding to access requests.
These are just some suggestions from this office to help applicants, public bodies and our office manage multiple requests more efficiently. If you have your own suggestions, the IPC would be happy to consider them. In the end, we all want these reviews resolved as quickly as possible.