Voting for free expression: Week Three - Ask your local candidates about public access to Canadian courts

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Ahead of Canada’s May 2 federal election, CJFE encourages you to ask your local candidates about their stance on critical free expression issues. Each week CJFE will post questions which you can e-mail, call or write to your candidates. We’d love to know what they say, and what your thoughts are too.

Ask your local candidates about public access to Canadian courts

Canada’s Department of Justice identifies the open court principle as a requirement that “court proceedings be open to the public, and that publicity as to those proceedings be unhindered.” This principle is based on the concept that the information provided will encourage feedback and discussion among members of the public, which promotes accountability of the judicial system. There are exceptions to this principle and it is up to the judges to balance the right to open courts with the rights and interest of the public and participants in judicial processes.

The primary campaigners for maintaining and improving the openness of courts tend to be journalists and advocates of free expression. While journalists will also question court rulings on publication bans and access to court documents, one long-time battle has been for greater camera access in courtrooms. Camera access has been infrequent and inconsistent in courts across the country.

Pilot projects to allow greater access have been conducted in the Supreme Court of Canada and the Federal Court of Appeal as well as in provincial courts in Nova Scotia, British Colombia and Ontario. Following a two-year pilot, the Supreme Court of Canada began broadcasting hearings in 1997 on the Cable Public Affairs Channel. In 2009 they introduced online webcasts. Neither the Federal Court of Appeal nor Nova Scotia continued camera use after their pilot projects in the 1990s. In British Colombia, a more recent 2010 pilot project met with greater success. BC’s provincial courts followed up on the project with practice rules that invite the media to apply to court judges to broadcast all or part of a specific case. In March 2011, the BC Supreme Court ruled in favour of allowing television and web cameras to film the final arguments in a case about Canada’s anti-polygamy laws. Yet, filming in courtrooms remains the exception rather than the norm.

Ontario’s 50-day pilot project in the Ontario Court of Appeal in 2007 was found to be an overwhelming success in a report commissioned by the Ministry of the Attorney General. The Report, completed in 2008, was not made public until The Canadian Press accessed it through a freedom of information request. In spite of the Report's positive review, Ontario remains the only court system which has a specific ban on cameras. Attorney General Chris Bentley indicated in March 2011 that he is open to increasing camera access, and is interested in canvassing the opinions of participants in the justice system.

Cameras in courtrooms ensure that the trial process is more open to public scrutiny. It is not feasible for the majority of Canadian’s to attend court hearings in person; televised broadcasts would create much broader access to the judicial system. Additional arguments have been made that televised trials will promote understanding of Canada’s justice system, and that witnesses will be more likely to tell the truth with cameras present. CBC has compiled a short summary of the main points for and against greater camera access. Concerns like witnesses being reluctant to testify on film, lawyers grandstanding and potential infringements on privacy would need to be taken into serious consideration to ensure that cameras are not used in a way that would be harmful to the administration of justice.

We invite you to ask your candidates the following:

1) Do you support the open court principle?
2) If elected MP of my riding, what steps would you take to ensure that journalists and the public have greater access to Canadian courts?

You can e-mail, call or write to the candidates in your riding, and let us know what they say on our Facebook Discussion Board. We'd love to know what your thoughts are on these issues too.

Not sure who your candidates are or how to get a hold of them? Elections Canada allows you to search by your postal code to find information on your riding.