September 28, 2020
Access to Information and COVID-19
An essential step in the process of preparing immigration applications involves accessing a client’s records held by a variety of government institutions, including Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada and the Canada Border Services Agency. This is of course accomplished through the submission of an Access to Information request. Review of these records in turn allows counsel to confirm a variety of information required by immigration applications, for example previous dates of travel to Canada, thereby ensuring accuracy and potentially avoiding a misrepresentation finding.
As with all other governmental regimes, processing of Access to Information requests have been significantly impacted by the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is in part because federal employees have been required to work from home and are thus unable to access materials required in the processing of requests, including for example electronic records held on higher security networks. In an article on the impact of COVID-19 on requests, the government has clarified that institutions are still finding ways to continue to process requests, including by:
- offering requesters the option of searching only electronic records to respond to their request
- establishing new digital processes to replace paper-based business processes
- accessing government networks after-hours to work on requests
- using e-post to transmit records to requesters, instead of mail
Of course, for both applicants and counsel, these processing issues introduced by COVID-19 may be frustrating as they further delay the preparation of applications for submission, the processing of which has then be delayed again due to COVID-19. Still, we wish to acknowledge government efforts to continue to process requests despite the barriers that they are now facing.
The government further notes that efforts to improve the access to information review process are ongoing. A recent article published in ImmQuest byMario D. Bellissimo provides information that would support these efforts; specifically, in this article, Mr. Bellissimo has set out a number of pressing improvements to the ATI regime that require further serious consideration. These include:
- ATIP Processing Times: There is a need for the development of a new system, since the delay in processing ATIPS records in many cases has become unworkable. This is again particularly evident with the advent of COVID-19, with replies to applications being delayed by several months.
- ATIP Accounts: It may be helpful to introduce an ATIP account system where parties, like law firms and stakeholders, can create an ATIP account that saves all their information, requests and responses. It will make it easier for both parties to track communication.
- Delivery of ATIP Requests: ATIP officers currently use generic wording when distributing records, making it difficult to determine what has been disclosed. We suggest two ways this can be remedied:
- Provide the ATIP file number in the “Do not reply” email we receive right after a request is submitted so that the requestor can track each request effectively; or
- Include the specific wording of the request in the emails/letters that accompany the records that are provided.
If you are currently in process of preparing an immigration application and require assistance with same, including in submission of an access to information request, contact our office today!