Beneficiary’s access to estate information is limited to his own personal information under PIPEDA

PIPEDA Report of Findings #2013-005

October 2, 2013


An individual claimed he was a beneficiary to the separate estates of his grandmother and mother. He requested access under PIPEDA to information and documents pertaining to the estates from a legal firm that had acted as a legal agent for another law firm involved in administering the two estates. Specifically, he sought access to information that concerned either himself as a beneficiary and/or beneficiary entitlements in general.

As the legal firm did not answer the individual’s access requests, he filed a complaint with our Office. Following this, the firm responded that it held no personal information belonging to the individual. It also pointed out that neither the individual nor the estates had ever been a client of the firm. Nonetheless, the individual contended that he had an entitlement under PIPEDA to obtain access to general estate information for estates in which he is named as a beneficiary. In support of his claim, he referred to provincial court rules.

Our investigation determined that the legal firm receiving the access request ought to have responded to the individual within the 30-day time limit allowed by PIPEDA, even if the firm did not hold any of his personal information.

As for the access rights of the individual, we determined that the individual was only entitled to obtain information held in connection with the estates that was specifically about him. We noted that it was far from clear how much of the requested information and documents (i.e., statements of accounts, money received and receipts of disbursements) would qualify as the individual’s personal information. In the circumstances, we were satisfied that the legal firm had carried out a reasonable search of its records for the individual’s personal information.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada found that, given the firm’s initial failure to respond to the access request in a timely manner before eventually answering, the complaint was well-founded and resolved.

Lessons Learned

  • Under PIPEDA, individuals are entitled only to have access to information that can be considered their own personal information (i.e., only information that is “about” them, within the meaning of the Act).
  • Organizations must, upon request, inform an individual of the existence, use and disclosure of their personal information and must give them access to that information. Organizations are required to respond to a request for access within 30 days, even if they have no information that is responsive to the request.

Report of Findings

Complaint under the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (the “Act” or “PIPEDA”)

Summary of the Complaint

1. The complainant alleged that the respondent refused his requests, as a beneficiary, to have access to information the respondent holds relating to the estates of his mother and grandmother.

Summary of Investigation

2. The complainant claims to be a beneficiary in the separate estates of his grandmother and mother, respectively. Based on his submissions to this Office, he is of the view that estate and beneficiary information contained in these two estates constitutes his personal information under PIPEDA.

3. The respondent is a law firm, located in one province, that acted as a legal agent for another law firm, located in another province, involved in administering these estates. According to the evidence before us, the respondent acted to carry out a land transaction in connection with the administration of the complainant’s grandmother’s estate.

4. The complainant sent a written access request to the respondent. As legal beneficiary named in the estates, he requested access to all estates information as it related to himself as a beneficiary, as well as information related to beneficiary matters and entitlements, such as all correspondence, statement of accounts, account money received, copies of receipts and/or disbursements.

5. As he did not receive a response, the complainant sent another request, dated several months later, to which he received no reply either. 

6. The complaint then filed his access complaint with our Office.

7. When our Office intervened, the respondent provided a written response to the complainant’s access request. In this response, the respondent confirmed that it held no personal information about the complainant and that neither the complainant nor the estates had been clients of the respondent.

8. The complainant was not satisfied with the response, although he did not point to specific personal information that he believed was being withheld from him. He claimed that he had an entitlement under PIPEDA to obtain access to general estate information for estates in which he is named either as a co-executorFootnote 1 or a beneficiary. The complainant also stated that provincial Court of Queen’s Bench Rules allowed for a person interested in the estate to obtain an account of the handling of an estate. 

Application

9. In making our determinations, we applied Principles 4.9 and 4.9.1 as well as subsections 2(1), 8(3) and 8(5).

10. Subsection 2(1) defines “personal information” as information about an identifiable individual, but does not include the name, title or business address or telephone number of an employee of an organization.

11. Principle 4.9 states that upon request, an individual shall be informed of the existence, use, and disclosure of his or her personal information and shall be given access to that information.

12. Principle 4.9.1 further states that upon request, an organization shall inform an individual whether or not the organization holds personal information about the individual.

13. Subsection 8(3) stipulates that an organization shall respond to a request with due diligence and in any case no later than thirty days after receipt of the request. Subsection 8(5) adds that if the organization fails to respond within the time limit, the organization is deemed to have refused the request.

Findings

14. The complainant claims that, as a beneficiary of two estates, he is entitled to obtain access to information about those estates. However, PIPEDA only provides an individual with a right to access their own personal information. It does not provide special access rights for estate beneficiaries or allow the complainant to access estate information where the information is not “about” him within the meaning of the Act.

15. Much of the information the complainant requested in his access request does not appear, on its face, to be his personal information. Rather it would appear to be information related to the estates and their administration. For instance, it is far from clear how statements of accounts, money received and receipts of disbursements would qualify as the complainant’s personal information. The complainant is only entitled to obtain information that the respondent may hold in connection with the estates that is specifically about him.

16. The complainant referred on several occasions to a province’s Court of Queen’s Bench Rules as a source of his entitlement to at least some of the information. However, whether the rules of court in that province may provide the complainant with access to some or all of the information he is seeking is not relevant to our investigation. We must assess whether the respondent provided the complainant with his personal information, as required under PIPEDA and not under another statute or regulation.

17. Under subsection 8(3) of PIPEDA, an organization is required to respond to a request for access to personal information within 30 days, even if it has no information that is responsive to the request. In this case, the respondent chose to ignore the complainant’s requests, believing that no response was required. Thus, pursuant to subsection 8(5), the respondent is deemed to have refused the request. This clearly contravenes Principles 4.9 and 4.9.1, and subsection 8(3).

18. After our Office’s intervention, the respondent did ultimately provide the complainant with a written response to his access request indicating that it did not hold any personal information concerning the complainant. We are satisfied that the respondent conducted a reasonable search of its records and that, given its limited and indirect role relating to the administration of the estates, it does not hold any of the complainant’s personal information.

19. Our Office is now satisfied that the complainant’s request for access to his personal information has been fulfilled.

Conclusion

20. Accordingly, we conclude that the matter is well-founded and resolved.

 

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