Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Privacy Commssioner says beneficiary access to estate information is limited to his own personal information under PIPEDA, bigger jurisdictional question not addressed

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has released a new report of findings related to an individual's request of a law firm for information about his possible entitlement as a beneficiary of the estates of his mother and grandmother. (See: Commissioner’s Findings - PIPEDA Report of Findings #2013-005: Beneficiary’s access to estate information is limited to his own personal information under PIPEDA.)

The law firm initially ignored the applicant's request and the individual complained. From the summary:

Our investigation determined that the legal firm receiving the access request ought to have responded to the individual within the 30-day time limit allowed by PIPEDA, even if the firm did not hold any of his personal information.

As for the access rights of the individual, we determined that the individual was only entitled to obtain information held in connection with the estates that was specifically about him. We noted that it was far from clear how much of the requested information and documents (i.e., statements of accounts, money received and receipts of disbursements) would qualify as the individual’s personal information. In the circumstances, we were satisfied that the legal firm had carried out a reasonable search of its records for the individual’s personal information.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada found that, given the firm’s initial failure to respond to the access request in a timely manner before eventually answering, the complaint was well-founded and resolved.

What I find particularly interesting in this case is the lack of any discussion about whether the Commissioner had jurisdiction to investigate in the first place. As was definitively decided in State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company v. Privacy Commissioner of Canada, 2010 FC 736, PIPEDA only applies to the collection, use and disclosure of personal information in the course of "commercial activities". In State Farm, the court found that a claim for damages between to individual litigants before the courts was not a "commercial activity" even though an insurance company, a law firm and a private investigator were all involved. At its core, it was a personal matter and not a commercial one.

I would think that in the case of an estate, it is similarly not a "commercial activity" at all, even if a law firm is involved. There's no mention of the issue in the finding, so it's likely that this issue was never raised.

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