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Processing original files versus photocopies

Some Government institutions have denied individuals access to their personal information, thus contributing to the rising number of complaints to this Office, because the departmental Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) offices are increasingly relying on photocopies provided by their program areas, rather than working with original documents, when processing requests. The problem with this arrangement is that ATIP analysts cannot be certain that what they are given represents all the information the individual is seeking.

When this Office receives a "denial of access" complaint, we ask to see the original file to compare it with the information processed by the ATIP office. Often we have discovered that the ATIP office did not have all the information contained on the original file-because someone did not think it was relevant or had removed internal notes, or simply because the backside of double-sided documents had been missed when the documents were photocopied.

The subtle nuances that can only be appreciated when viewing original files are also lost. Photocopies do not reveal the use or meaning of different coloured forms or highlighting of significant passages, and may not capture the exact placement of post-it notes with comments. Nor do they include the paperclips that explain why certain documents are grouped together or why they are out of chronological order. These elements are essential to understanding the context of the file and to decide whether the personal information can be released to the individual.

Having our investigators review original files eliminates any misgivings that the institution may not have located all the requested information, and also gives us the unequivocal certainty that we require to ensure access has not been denied.

Although some program areas would rather not surrender their original files, particularly those with ongoing administrative activities, we suggest that they retain a photocopy for their own use for the few days it takes the ATIP office to review the original file. We also urge ATIP co-ordinators to reclaim their responsibility for the quality of responses they send to individuals by working with original files only.

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