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Alberta to amend privacy law this fall to comply with Supreme Court

EDMONTON - Alberta plans to amend one of its main privacy laws this fall to comply with a Supreme Court of Canada judgment that found the legislation unconstitutional.

In a 9-0 decision in November, the high court struck down the entire Personal Information Protection Act and gave the province one year to bring the law in line with the Charter of Rights.

The case focused on freedom of political expression and involved a union that took photographs and video of people crossing a picket line during a strike in 2006.

"It is the government's intention to pass the amendments early in the fall 2014 session to comply with the court's ruling," Gerald Kastendieck, a spokesman for Service Alberta, said Wednesday.

He said the amendments would focus on unions and picketing. There won't be a general review of the 10-year-old legislation this year.

Under Alberta law, a special committee of the legislature must begin a comprehensive review of the protection act by July 15, 2015.

The government's approach to the Supreme Court ruling follows advice from Alberta privacy commissioner Jill Clayton.

Clayton sent a letter on Dec. 20 in which she strongly urged the government to focus strictly on unions and freedom of expression.

She suggested that if the government did more than that, there could be calls for more changes to the law, which would make it difficult to meet the Supreme Court's deadline.

"I anticipate that some will see the enactment of corrective legislation as an opportunity to propose amendments ... on unrelated issues, but I would caution against that at this time," Clayton wrote.

She also recommended that the government include in its amendments the date for when a comprehensive review of its privacy legislation will begin.

The legislation is only one of three privacy-related laws the Alberta government is under pressure to review.

The province is considering changing its Health Information Act following the theft of a laptop last fall that held the private health records of 620,000 people.

Last week, Clayton said there is nothing in the act that would require the company that had responsibility for the laptop to inform the people whose private information was on the machine.

Clayton also said the law did not give her the authority to tell the government about the theft, which was reported in late September but was only made public last week.

She has recommended the government look at amending the law to make such notifications possible. Health Minister Fred Horne said he would consider the changes.

The province is also looking at part of the Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act that bans the publication of the names of children who die in government care.

This week the government is holding meetings on how to balance the need for openness and privacy when dealing with child deaths.

Eric Adams, a University of Alberta law professor, said the government should move carefully and avoid politics when it reviews its privacy-related laws.

"I am always a proponent in these kinds of scenarios of slow legislative processes to get it right," said Adams, whose background is in constitutional and labour law.

"Legislating to put out fires is generally not the best way that the democratic process should produce long-lasting, good legislation for the province."

Adams said the danger of any quick-fix is that the government might get it wrong and end up in court.

"You might find out that in solving one set of problems that looked immediate, you have created 100 others."

Last summer the government wrapped up the public consultation part of a review into another privacy law called the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

Service Alberta says feedback from that review will be used to improve the law.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version referred to the Personal Information Privacy Act in para 2.

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