When a California jury acquitted O.J. Simpson of two counts of murder in 1995, the verdict delivered a where-were-you-when moment to people around the world. But the trial also gave Canadian advocates for cameras in the courtroom their biggest and longest-lasting headache. The case has become a textbook argument against putting cameras in the courts, with grandstanding lawyers on both sides, an allegedly star-struck judge, and an orgy of commentary stoking a media frenzy around the televised trial.
That same year, the Supreme Court of Canada allowed CBC Newsworld to broadcast live a tax case concerning spousal support payments, Thibaudeau v. Canada, and shortly thereafter began broadcasting its proceedings regularly on the Canadian Public Affairs Channel. But rather than setting a precedent for televising proceedings, progress outside the country’s top court has largely stalled, with the spectre of O.J. raising its head in every province that tackles the issue.
“I think the O.J. Simpson trial and some other sensational cases in the U.S. are responsible for the visceral reaction you find by many people against it,” says Dan Burnett, a media lawyer at Owen Bird Law Corp. in Vancouver. Burnett, who has been a key player in the campaign for cameras in the courtroom in B.C., sees the Simpson case as an anomalous one. “They have been televising trials for a long time in the U.S. and for the most part, it works fine,” he says. “They may have a problem there with celebrity trials, but I don’t see us having that same problem in Canada, and of course if we did, the ongoing discretion of the judge to just turn off the cameras would kick in.”
In 2001, Burnett argued unsuccessfully on behalf of broadcasters seeking to televise the criminal trial of former B.C. premier Glen Clark, who was charged with breach of trust in relation to home renovations performed by a neighbour who had also applied for a casino licence from the province. The broadcasters, vigorously opposed by the province’s attorney general, appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, but Clark was acquitted before it could be heard, rendering the appeal moot.
In late 2010, then-attorney general Mike de Jong softened the stance of his office, launching a pilot to video record sentencing proceedings at three provincial court locations. Then in early 2011, Burnett convinced B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Bauman to allow cameras in to record the closing arguments in a hearing over the constitutional validity of Canada’s anti-polygamy laws. The CBC streamed the arguments online with a 10-minute delay. “Most Canadians haven’t actually sat down and watched our courts in action. It might not be the most sensational thing around, but it is very impressive. You realize that this is a fair process, that these are serious people who are trying to treat witnesses and parties fairly, and it’s a shame that citizens can’t see that more for themselves,” says Burnett.
He says he was surprised last year when the provincial government completed its turnaround, announcing that it, rather than media organizations, would initiate applications to televise trials for alleged Vancouver rioters following the Canucks’ 2011 Stanley Cup loss. “In a way it’s been coming. Obviously, attitudes have changed, and probably for the better in terms of openness of the courts,” says Burnett. “It’s just an opportunity, as I see it, to use technology to expand the courtroom gallery. We start with this principle that the courtrooms are open, but that principle loses a lot of its reality when you take into account that the massive majority of citizens really can’t come and attend court in person. They work during the day, or they live out of town. Even if they could come, there’s very limited seating, so only a tiny fraction of the public can actually see the court firsthand. Having the open door and the gallery seats there is, in many cases, nothing more than symbolic openness.”
The B.C. government’s push for cameras met with an unenthusiastic response from the Crown attorneys who were forced to make the applications to televise. Six prosecutors are working on the riot file, recommending charges against about 80 individuals. “They have concerns around their personal security. Their position is that they’re not going to consent to their own images being televised, which is something the court needs to consider,” says Jamie Chaffe, president of the Canadian Association of Crown Counsel.
And while the attorney general may be able to impose her will on the Crown’s office, the ultimate decision-makers, the judiciary, are another matter altogether. De Jong’s successor in the office, Barry Penner, was forced to shelve his sentencing pilot after running into stiff resistance from provincial court judges, while the Canadian Judicial Council’s official position on televised trials is that it “is not in the best interests of the administration of justice.”
In mid-February, however, B.C. Attorney General Shirley Bond was forced to scale back her plans after Provincial Court Justice Malcolm MacLean denied the first application to televise, in the sentencing of a rioter who had pleaded guilty. MacLean rejected an argument that the application was politically motivated, but said there were too many unanswered questions around the safety of court personnel and the re-broadcast of footage, instead suggesting the appointment of an amicus curiae to study his concerns in greater detail.
That prompted Bond to rescind her direction to Crown counsel, citing the delays MacLean’s approach would cause, but reaffirmed her commitment to cameras in court. “In the meantime, we will carefully consider Judge MacLean’s decision, and we will continue to look for opportunities to make the justice system more transparent to all British Columbians,” Bond said in a statement.
But some had already dismissed the government’s move as a gimmick, and some advocates fear that what may have been seen as a leap forward, may in fact have set back the campaign for televised court proceedings. Robert Holmes, president of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, has suspicions about the provincial government’s long-term commitment to the idea. “If this is meant to be a test run, as a precursor towards a broader use of cameras in the courtroom, then all power to it,” says Holmes. “On the other hand, if the government is solely doing this to add an extra degree of stigmatization to a particular group, and they plan on never letting cameras in again, then I’m not sure I want them on my side, because their motives are suspect.”
Paul Burstein, the former president of Ontario’s Criminal Lawyers’ Association, concedes that the time may have come for cameras in the courtroom, but is unimpressed by the intial approach of the B.C. government. “It should be for the right reasons, and this is clearly for the wrong reasons. It promotes public shaming and potential vigilantism, which is just wrong,” he said prior to MacLean’s ruling. “I think it’s appalling. Not only is the intention to shame, but the subtext seems to be that the government wants people to know the faces of those responsible, so that if the courts don’t mete out enough punishment, the public can sit in judgment as to what else should appropriately be administered to these individuals by way of public ridicule, spitting on the street, and so on. I’m exaggerating to some extent, but what else is the purpose?”
Donna Turko, a Vancouver criminal lawyer and former television journalist, earned her MA in sociology and anthropology a decade ago with a thesis that examined the deep-seated division between legal and media professionals over cameras in the courts. She says it was never likely judges would grant applications to televise riot trials, especially over the objections of defence counsel. “In general, the legal profession doesn’t trust the media, because there’s an innate sense that for the media, it’s about making money, and not protecting rights,” she says.
According to Burnett, the more judges see cameras in action, the more comfortable they will become with the idea. He says judges who have led commissions of inquiry, which are often televised, rarely come away opposed to the idea. “Generally what they see is that it all works in a pretty civilized way, and it’s not such a big deal. The fear of the bogeyman disappears.”
Chaffe says he’s keen to see courts retain the final say on whether or not to allow cameras, and says that view is backed up by the January 2011 Supreme Court decision Canadian Broadcasting Corp. v. Canada (Attorney General). In that case, the top court upheld the constitutionality of a Quebec Superior Court directive that limited journalists’ use of cameras and recording equipment to certain areas of the courthouse.
But it’s another critical courtroom player that is central to his organization’s opposition to cameras in court — the witness. “One of the real challenges, particularly with serious criminal offences, is whether or not we can actually get witnesses to come forward and testify. It’s a challenge that gets much more difficult when witnesses feel that not only will they be in open court facing the accused, and possibly media in the courtroom, but that their image could be projected on a daily basis across the country contemporaneous with the trial,” says Chaffe. “Television may actually inhibit access to justice and access to the court if witnesses or victims don’t want to speak out.”
But Holmes says judges can easily work around sensitive witnesses by obscuring images or distorting voices where they deem it appropriate. “That’s fair because there are valid excuses and reasons for limiting it in some contexts,” he says. Burnett agrees that the judge should have control over what can be broadcast, and says concerns about witnesses are “overblown.” “It isn’t as if you turn on the camera and there’s no turning back,” he says. “The reality is high-profile cases attract lot of attention, and you’re going to have a packed gallery, sketch artists, camera crews outside doing reports, the judge sitting up at an imposing-looking desk, and people being cross-examined aggressively. The idea that this one little camera sitting on a tripod at the back of the room is going to be the thing that suddenly makes a witness unable to testify properly is a bit of a stretch as far as I’m concerned.”
Chaffe doesn’t object as strongly to the potential broadcast of appeal court proceedings. Live witnesses there are not an issue, which may help account for the Supreme Court’s pioneering position on this area.
Its decision in the 1981 Patriation Reference case was the first in the country to be televised live. From 1993 to 1995, the court allowed cameras in three times to cover cases involving the tax deductibility of nanny expenses, the right to assisted suicide, and the tax deductibility of spousal support payments, before CPAC began regularly broadcasting from the court. Since 2009, the court has branched out even further, launching live webcasts and archiving video footage of hearings.
Ironically, that puts the Canadian Supreme Court at odds with its American counterpart, which has traditionally eschewed television cameras, despite their widespread use in state-run courts. All 50 states allow cameras in their courtrooms. The U.K.’s experience broadly mirrors Canada’s, where the only court that allows cameras is the Supreme Court.
Appeal courts have also been at the heart of provincial experiments with cameras in court. Nova Scotia invited applications to broadcast hearings from its appeal court for two years from 1996 to 1998. Meanwhile, in Ontario, the province’s 2006 Panel on Justice and the Media, including luminaries from the legal and media spheres, recommended an amendment to the province’s ban on cameras in the Courts of Justice Act, to allow them for proceedings in the Court of Appeal and the Divisional Court, as well as motions and applications in Superior Court that involved no witness examination. “In such cases, televising should be broadly permitted. The court should always have discretion to exclude television, but only after giving due consideration to the value of openness,” the panel wrote. “Some may see this as a small step. We do not think so. . . . The people of this province will have an opportunity to be eyewitnesses to important aspects of the justice system in action. Whether they watch for inspiration, education, or even entertainment, they will be observers of a historic process, which is a critical element of our democratic system.”
A three-month pilot followed in late 2007, when one courtroom at the province’s Court of Appeal was outfitted with cameras and microphones. The $365,000-project saw 21 cases streamed online across 20 court sessions. Only one of the cases, an appeal by a man wrongly convicted of killing his young niece, garnered much media coverage, but the court’s web site logged 18,000 visits, and 95 per cent of those interviewed for an evaluation report said the pilot enhanced openness, while 85 per cent called for an expansion to other courts.
The 2008 report on the pilot was only released in March last year after a freedom-of-information request, and then-attorney general Chris Bentley said he was open to revisiting the issue. Brendan Crawley, a spokesman for the Ministry of the Attorney General, tells Canadian Lawyer that privacy issues remain a concern, but that consultations are underway with chief justices of all three of the province’s courts. “We need to ensure that we approach this in a thoughtful and comprehensive manner. These are informal consultations, and we have not placed any firm timelines for them to be completed,” says Crawley. In the meantime, there are no cameras in Ontario’s courts.
John Honderich, the former editor and publisher of the Toronto Star, was a member of the 2006 panel on justice and the media. He says he was advocating to have cameras present at all levels of court, but has been disappointed at the lack of action even on the panel’s watered-down recommendations. “This was a compromise that everyone was supposed to be able to live with, but I think they just weren’t prepared to take on the legal establishment,” says Honderich. “The establishment in this province has been very strongly imbued, and I guess the government just didn’t see this as a battle they wanted to fight.
For Turko, the problem with the focus on appeal proceedings is that they are the ones of least interest to the public at large. “It’s like watching paint dry,” she says. “From an academic point of view, there are certainly things to be learned, but the exercise doesn’t really go anywhere if nobody watches it. It comes down to the quantum of what you’re going to get for costs that could be put elsewhere in the system.”
In the B.C. context, Chaffe says he would rather see the money and court time being spent on applications to televise instead being used towards dealing with inadequacies in the court system there. “They’ve got 2,500 cases over 18 months waiting for trial, and they’re 20 judges short of full complement at the provincial court level. This is going to hamper the ability of the justice system to react to other cases that the public may very well regard as a higher priority, like sexual assaults and homicides, which we think is harmful,” he says.