Friday, July 27, 2012

British Columbia first responder protection law clashes with privacy rights, Commissioner says

I rarely disagree with Liz Denham, the very bright Information and Privacy Commissioner of British Columbia, but I do in this case. The BC government has passed a law that allows police officers, firefighters and paramedics to seek a court order to access someone else’s medical records if the first responder has come into contact with bodily fluids. (I'll admit a possible source of bias in this case: I am related to two first responders who live in BC: a police officer and a paramedic.) The Commissioner has stated in a letter to the minister responsible which says that the bill will not be useful, as there are “very few instances where emergency responders contract communicable diseases.” (I have only seen reports about the letter, not the letter itself.)

But even if there are very few instances of first responders contracting communicable diseases, the possible outcome of those few cases can be very harmful to the first responder. And we're talking about those situations where the individual stubbornly (and selfishly, in my view) refuses to disclose whether he or she has put a first responder at risk.

Most of the risk of many forms of infection can be proactively mitigated if not eliminated immediately following contact. If there's a flaw with the bill, it's the time that it likely takes to get into court to get the requisite court order. The information disclosure can be very carefully handled to protect the privacy of the individual as much as possible in the circumstances ("nothing to worry about" or "you need prophylaxis for HIV"), but the possible outcome of untreated contact can be disastrous for the cops, paramedics and firefighters who put themselves at risk.

We are often called to balance privacy rights against other societal values. That balancing should be done by a judge within a framework of accountability and transparency. I think the legislation gets the balance right.

For more coverage, see: Victoria News - First responder protection law clashes with privacy rights.


John G said...

Are these first responder laws really needed, though, or are they a sign of panic before the unknown, and politicians pandering to it? How many cases have there been in North America of first responders being harmed by bodily substances of those they were rescuing?

Anonymous said...

The law will then be changed to allow records access WITHOUT a court order. Much like the Federal Bill C30 accessing Internet Records WITHOUT a court order.