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A clarification on court decisions

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Speaking at the Canadian Bar Association Conference earlier this week, the Privacy Commissioner talked about the privacy implications of courts and administrative tribunals posting to the web decisions and other documents containing personal information.

While her speech generated a handful of articles, her comments created a bit of a stir when one newspaper article misinterpreted what she had said, suggesting that the Commissioner was proposing that all court decisions be scrubbed of personal information before being made widely available. Of course, neither the Privacy Act nor the Commissioner’s mandate applies to the courts. In her speech, the Commissioner was actually discussing the legal obligations of government institutions subject to the Privacy Act. (You can read the transcript of her speech here.) These institutions have tended to evoke the practices of the courts as a justification for the disclosure of personal information, a tendency that inspired the Commissioner’s remarks. Other interpretations of the Commissioner’s comments better capture her concerns.

Below is the commissioner’s letter to the Toronto Star which appeared yesterday morning.

Re: Hide IDs in court rulings, privacy chief says, Aug. 20

I am writing to correct a false impression left by the article. My mandate does not extend to the courts. However, it is interesting to note that they, like my office, have been wrestling with the issue of posting personal information online. My role is to ensure that federal administrative tribunals respect the privacy rights of Canadians.

Ordinary Canadians provide their personal information to these tribunals for various reasons. They may, for instance, be seeking access to a government benefit or reparation for an alleged government mistake.

A law-abiding citizen fighting for a government benefit should not be forced to expose her medical history or other highly sensitive personal information to public scrutiny. They should not have to abandon their privacy rights.

My office has recently investigated complaints about the online posting of personal information by several administrative tribunals. We expect to release our findings in these cases in the fall.

Jennifer Stoddart, Privacy Commissioner of Canada

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