CORNER BROOK — The province’s privacy commissioner is taking the College of the North Atlantic to court to have a request made by Peter McBreairty regarding the school’s legal bills reviewed.
The city man says the latest development in his ongoing battle against the College of the North Atlantic represents the leading edge of the implications associated with controversial amendments to the province’s privacy legislation.
McBreairty has been embroiled in a legal battle with the college since 2003, when he was let go as the director of student services at the college’s campus in Qatar. He has maintained he was wrongfully dismissed over false allegations of improperly admitting students to the campus.
Throughout the course of his fight against the public post-secondary institution, McBreairty has filed numerous access to information requests. Among those have been a series of requests for invoices reflecting how much money the College of the North Atlantic has been paying lawyers it has hired to deal with the McBreairty file.
A couple of years ago, McBreairty and the college came to an agreement that he would file those particular requests at intervals so as to make processing his requests a more efficient task. He has received several legal fee invoices and, although most of the details have been redacted, the amounts being paid out by the college were left visible.
McBreairty had been satisfied with that arrangement up until his most recent request for the latest set of invoices. After receiving a letter dated Oct. 16, 2012 that confirmed the college had received his request, McBreairty was sent another letter 10 days later informing him that his request was being refused this time around. The college told him that the legal invoices were “subject to solicitor-client privilege and are protected from disclosure” pursuant to the provincial privacy legislation.
“This is the first time, that I am aware of, that the college has relied on the new (privacy legislation) provisions to deny records which were previously released,” said McBreairty. “It may be precedent-setting across all government departments in that the government has now chosen to hide how much is being spent on lawyers.”
Judge must make determination
Back to his own particular case, McBreairty said the amended legislation prevents the Office of the Privacy Commissioner from directly reviewing the legal invoices to see if they should be provided to McBreairty. In order to have those documents reviewed, the privacy commissioner must ask a court judge to make the determination of whether McBreairty can still access them.
McBreairty asked the Office of the Privacy Commissioner to do just that and it has agreed to go to court. The privacy commissioner filed a notice of appeal in the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador last week.
The College of the North Atlantic said it was not a change to privacy legislation that led to the decision to not give McBreairty the documents he wants. Rather, it was because a trial judge was selected six months ago to hear the case between him and the college.
Requests of the nature McBreairty has made regarding legal fees, according to the college, will not be filled by the institution while a trial is pending because of solicitor-client privilege.
The college declined to comment on the appeal by the privacy commissioner’s office that is now before the court, saying it is now up to that process to decide if McBreairty is entitled to the legal invoices he is seeking.
After the last set of invoices he was granted access to about six months ago, McBreairty had calculated the college’s fees to hire external lawyers to deal with his case at around $550,000. He said there has been a “significant amount of work” done on his case since then.
His calculations do not account for any work the solicitor the college has on staff may have also done on his file in the last decade. The legal bill is now into the $600,000 range, figures McBreairty.
In 2005, a Public Service Commission management grievance panel voted unanimously in McBreairty’s favour and recommended payment for lost wages and benefits from his contract, as well as travel and legal fees.
“I can assure you that payment would have been a hell of a lot cheaper than the $600,000,” said McBreairty.