November 24, 2014

News | January 25, 2014
McGill settles access to information suit
University will release files on military research, fossil fuel investments
Written by | Visual by Tamim Sujat | The McGill Daily

As of this January, McGill’s ongoing access to information (ATI) lawsuit has finally come to a settlement, with the University agreeing to release longstanding ATI requests that it has been fighting in court, and respondents agreeing to drop or modify various requests.

Starting in late February, McGill will respond to a variety of long-standing requests. The requests pertain to, among other things, the University’s contracts in military research, internal policies regarding sexual assault complaints, and university research contracts with fossil fuel extraction and mining companies. Some of the requests that were dropped include those pertaining to the Winter 2012 occupation of the James Administration building.

The settlement comes after an appeal motion filed by the University in December after the Commission d’accès à l’information du Québec – the provincial body overseeing ATI appeals – decided against McGill in October.

Along with withdrawing certain ATI requests the University was contesting, the new settlement also required that certain ATIs to be answered be redrafted and updated, and that respondents withdraw official complaints regarding the University’s conduct regarding ATIs.

Notably, the University will also be prohibited from designating requests as systematic or abusive in nature. Prior to the settlement, McGill’s legal argument stated that the various requests it was fighting were “abusive because of their systematic nature,” and requested that the Commission grant the University the power to deny future ATI requests at its discretion.

The respondents’ lawyer called the request legally unprecedented in a hearing in September – a fact that some respondents saw as part of the reason behind the recent settlement.

“In my view, today’s settlement does not represent a fundamental change in direction on the part of McGill, but rather a decision to cut its losses. I do not believe that any court would have accepted either its factual claims or its demand to pre-emptively deny information requests,” said Kevin Paul, one of the respondents, in a press release sent to The Daily.

“I think it’s important to avoid defining victory through the terms of a legal dispute. I would consider an important victory not only the actual disclosure of information but the freedom to act on that information in ways that challenge McGill’s authority to conduct research that helps militaries kill more efficiently.”

The University and respondents also released a joint statement outlining the details of the settlement.

“The University does not see this as a ‘win-lose’ situation,” McGill’s secretary-general, Stephen Strople, told The Daily by email. “We want to respect the law, and that is what we do. In this case, the requests for access were too broad, too general, and asking for too much considering the time within which disclosure had to happen.”

One of the respondents, Isaac Stethem, said that part of the reason behind the settlement may have been the University’s legal standing in its request to preemptively deny ATIs, which the Commission rejected last October. Stethem also added that the length of the legal battle could be due to the legal efforts on the part of the respondents.

“I think it may also have been the case that, originally, the University didn’t expect this level of effort on the part of the respondents in the case,” he told The Daily.

Paul also spoke to the broader importance of the information to be released later this year, in the context of the recent settlement.

“I think it’s important to avoid defining victory through the terms of a legal dispute. I would consider an important victory not only the actual disclosure of information but the freedom to act on that information in ways that challenge McGill’s authority to conduct research that helps militaries kill more efficiently,” he told The Daily.

The outstanding ATIs will be released from February 28 to August 15.

“I’m looking forward to seeing what’s in [the ATIs],” said Stethem. “The one thing that we do have to be on the lookout for is that, especially in some recent cases, the University does have a history of very heavily redacting some of the documents it releases when it does actually release ATI information. So definitely we’re not all the way there yet.”

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