Access to Letters of Reference

Guidelines on Access to Letters of Reference for Admission to a Program of Study

These guidelines apply to letters of reference for admission to all faculties, including Graduate Studies (both graduate and undergraduate) at the University of Alberta.

In Order F2000-029, the Alberta Information and Privacy Commissioner found that letters of reference for admission to a program at a post-secondary institution should be released to the subject of the letter without the requirement of a formal request under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

A letter of reference used for both admission and an award cannot be withheld in response to an access request. The fact that it was used for admission would mean that it would very probably need to be released to the applicant.

The Commissioner's Order is silent on the matter of references in support of scholarships. Such letters of reference would need to be released to an applicant if the same letter was used for admission. If the letters are unique to the award, the letters may not be released to an applicant. Access to letters of reference for the purposes of awards or benefits should still follow formal FOIP application procedures. Decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis by the Information and Privacy Office.

The Order applies retroactively to letters of reference in support of admission that form part of a student file. The extension of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act to the university in 1999 applied retroactively to all records held by the university at that time.


Notification should be provided to all referees providing references for applicants to a program of study that a copy of the reference will be provided to the student upon request. Such a request does not require a formal application for access to information under the Act.

When the university or a department of the university receives a request for access to letters of reference for admission to a program, the responding department, with the advice of the departmental FOIP Liaison Officer and the Information and Privacy Office, may provide a copy of such material without a formal FOIP request.

The Act requires that documents used to reach a decision affecting an individual need to be kept for a minimum of one year after the date of the decision. Thereafter, all documents can be destroyed in a manner that is in accordance with the retention schedules for departmental documents. Departments may wish to review their retention schedules. The advice of the University Archivist and Records Manager should be sought when considering changes to retention schedules.

Note that records cannot be destroyed when there is a formal request for access to them.

Additional Comments

The university cannot permit an individual requesting a letter of reference to waive his or her right of access. The Commissioner has explicitly ruled that such a waiver is not possible under the provisions of the Alberta Act.

If the reference letter is sent to another post-secondary institution in Alberta, it is likely that the Commissioner's Order would apply to the receiving institution. If the letter is sent to a post-secondary institution in another province or country, the access to information laws of that province or country would apply.

However, if a copy of the letter is in the custody of the University of Alberta, it is possible that an application could be made to this university for access to the letter.

N. B. It is important to note that records retained in the files of an individual, written in the course of university business, are subject to the Act, even though no copies have been placed in student files or in other departmental files. The right of access would apply to those letters, even though they may be retained in a home office.

The author of a letter of reference is not likely to be held liable for damages for the production of the letter. Although authors may be concerned that release of a letter of reference in response to an access request could lead to an applicant starting a lawsuit, the university's legal advice is that the likelihood of success in such an action is remote. Given that the applicant requests the letters, it would be extremely difficult to argue that he or she was damaged by the production of a letter.

Information and Privacy Office
University of Alberta
January 2014