Cameras in Manitoba courts

Manitoba’s judiciary made some history yesterday as the first court in Canada ever to conduct a proceeding out of a designated “broadcast room” — in this case, a murder acquittal in Court of Queen’s Bench issued by Associate Chief Justice Shane Perlmutter. The ruling was broadcast by the CBC.

The creation of three designated broadcast rooms — for the provincial, superior, and appeal court — is part of a pilot project designed by the province’s three chief justices and intended to “create a comfort level” with media in order to facilitate coverage of cases that have strong public interest and educational aspects.

While cameras in the courts have already been permitted in various circumstances in Canada (mainly in appeal courts and the Supreme Court of Canada), Manitoba Court of Appeal Chief Justice Richard Chartier says this is the first time a courtroom has been set up where it’s not only permitted but presumed cases will be broadcast.

“What’s unique about this is that, rather than forcing a party to apply for the matter to be broadcast, it’s presumptively assumed that it will be broadcast,” he says, “and it’s for the other parties to satisfy the court as to why it should not be broadcast or why certain limitations should be imposed.”

Chartier and his colleagues have stressed this is a pilot project and there are plenty of logistical wrinkles to work out.

But for the time being, it will work like this:
(a) media will receive notice of proceedings available for broadcast;
(b) only one camera crew will be allowed in the courtroom, so news organizations will co-ordinate to decide which one will cover the event;
(c) the organization will be allowed in with the understanding the video feed will be shared.

In the broadcast room, the judge will begin by asking counsel whether there’s any opposition to the broadcast, and the onus will be on counsel to provide legal justification against broadcasting.

The judge may also give instructions to the camera operator as to where footage may or may not be shot. A judge might prohibit filming the accused or the public gallery, for instance. (In yesterday’s hearing, Perlmutter ordered the camera be trained only on him during the hour-long recitation of reasons.)

With this initiative, the court intends to ease the protocol for broadcasting cases. Strong controls, however, remain in place. For one, the chief justices will decide which cases are appropriate for broadcast and only conduct proceedings deemed suitable.

“We’re obviously going to be trying to identify cases that might be interesting to the public,” says Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal. “But there will also be cases that might provide that public information that we think is consistent with access to justice.”

Cases pertaining to family law, child custody, sexual assault — and anything that may include witness testimony — will not be conducted out of the broadcast room. On the other hand, there may be many proceedings where the accused makes an appearance, along with counsel and the judge.

“Those would be sentencings, for example,” says Joyal, “where we would be getting submissions from both sides. There could be arguments with respect to injunctions and civil cases or whatever that involves, other than witness testimony.”

Advocate organizations for the accused, such as the John Howard Society, have raised concerns about the effects of excessive exposure. Kate Kehler, acting executive director of the Manitoba chapter says she appreciates the strong controls put in place around the initiative but is cautious about where this trend is headed.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the clients that we work with very often don’t have financial resources, so they are brought into court regularly in the orange jumpsuit and the handcuffs,” she says.

“So 10 years down the line, that person may be entirely different, and he he goes for a job and gets Googled and guess what pops up — a picture of him in an orange jumpsuit with handcuffs. So I’m concerned about that.”

Kehler cites an ongoing case in South Africa where the media is focused on the mother of the accused — “The camera is plastered on her all the time looking for some sort of reaction” — and she suggests the consequences of broadcasting proceedings extend beyond the accused:

“A loved one may not want to be there to support somebody on trial because they’re going to be on camera and identified.”

Kehler says she can appreciate the need for increased openness and public education in the courtroom, but hopes the court will take the rights of the accused into account and move carefully on broadcast protocols.

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