Section 19 - Disclosure harmful to individual or public safety

Overview

Section 19 is a discretionary exception that allows the head of a public body to refuse to disclose information, contained in government records, which could threaten a person’s safety, mental or physical health, or interfere with public safety.

Section Reference

Section 19 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act

19 (1) The head of a public body may refuse to disclose to an applicant information, including personal information about the applicant, if the disclosure could reasonably be expected to

(a) threaten anyone else's safety or mental or physical health, or

(b) interfere with public safety.

(2) The head of a public body may refuse to disclose to an applicant personal information about the applicant if the disclosure could reasonably be expected to result in immediate and grave harm to the applicant's safety or mental or physical health.

Summary

Subsection 19(1) gives the head discretion to refuse to disclose information, including an individual's own personal information, where the disclosure could threaten another person's safety, mental or physical health, or interfere with public safety.

Subsection 19(2) also gives the head discretion to refuse to disclose an individual's personal information if disclosing the information to that individual would result in immediate and grave harm to the individual's safety, or mental or physical health.

Policy

  1. Public bodies shall apply subsection 19(1) only where there are reasonable grounds for the head to believe that a threat to anyone’s safety or mental or physical health, or an interference with public safety could result from a disclosure.

  2. Public bodies shall regard the safeguarding of public health and safety as a priority in applying subsection 19(1).

  3. Public bodies shall apply subsection 19(2) only where there are reasonable grounds for the head to believe that an applicant’s own personal safety or mental or physical health would be compromised if the requested information were to be disclosed.

  4. The standard of proof to be applied by the head of the public body is a balance of probabilities that the potential violence or harm will result.  The head of the public body is not required to prove that the harm will result.

Procedure

  1. Preliminary examination

  2. Line by line review

  3. Exercising Discretion

  4. Severance

Interpretation

Interpretation Note 1 (Section 19(1)(a)):

Threaten anyone else’s safety or mental or physical health

"Threaten" means to create the possibility or risk of harm, or jeopardize an individual’s safety or mental or physical well-being.

The possibility or risk of harm is a low threshold that allows this exception to apply if there is a reasonable expectation that disclosure of the information could create a risk of harm to an individual or group of individuals.

"Safety"

"Mental health" means the ability of a person’s mind to function in its normal state.  Determination of the effect of a release of information on a person’s mental health must, where practicable, be based on a subjective evaluation made on a case by case basis.  It may be helpful for the head to obtain the assistance of an expert (e.g., a psychiatrist) when making this determination.

"Physical health" means the well being of an individual’s physical body.  Determination of the effect of a release of information on an individual’s physical health must consider the current or normal state of health of persons who may be affected by the release of information, as well as the decline in health that is expected to occur if the information is disclosed to the applicant.  It may be helpful for the head to obtain the assistance of an expert (e.g., a physician) when making this determination.

The safety of another person would be threatened if information were disclosed to an applicant that could jeopardize the other person's safety.  The mental or physical health of another person would be threatened if information were disclosed to an applicant that would cause severe stress to either the person's mind or body.

Examples:

  • An individual’s safety, or the safety of residents in an area, may be threatened if information about the location of a transition house is disclosed.

  • Another individual’s mental and physical health might be threatened if information were disclosed to an applicant which could reasonably be expected, if shown to the other person by the applicant, to cause the other person to become suicidal.

  • Disclosure of the identity of a whistle blower who has expressed opinions about wrongdoing during an audit may expose the individual to harm.

Interpretation Note 2 (Section 19(1)(b)):

Interfere with public safety  

"Interfere"  

"Public safety"  

Interference with public safety would occur if the disclosure of information could reasonably be expected to result in a significant alteration to or a hampering of the maintenance of those elements of the social and institutional structure which ensure public safety. 

Examples:

  • The disclosure of results of environmental tests taken with faulty equipment which falsely indicate a health hazard could reasonably be expected to interfere with public safety if release of this incorrect information would cause widespread panic.

  • This would normally be the type of information which would be released under the public interest override section (section 25).  However, here the results are clearly incorrect and the release of this information would:

    • cause widespread stress, disorder and panic;

    • create a situation where emergency services (such as hospitals and ambulances) would be deluged with calls, taking time away from ongoing responsibilities.

  • In this situation, the public interest clearly indicates the information should not be disclosed until remedial tests have been conducted.  If the information was correct, the information would have to be released pursuant to section 25. 

Immediate and grave harm  

"Immediate" means occurring or done at once or without delay (OED).  

"Grave" means extremely serious or threatening (OED).  

"Harm" in this context, means mental or physical trauma. This subsection allows the head to refuse to disclose information to an applicant where that disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause extremely serious or threatening physical or mental trauma to the applicant immediately after the information is disclosed. It may be helpful for the head to obtain the assistance of an expert (e.g., a psychiatrist) when making this determination.

Example:

  • An individual with a strong history of mental instability might suffer grave mental and physical trauma if certain diagnoses were made available to him or her.

Sectional Index of Commissioner's Orders

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Last updated: July 16, 2007