Not all that long ago, if you wanted to know what was happening in the courts you had two options: Rely on the media, or go to the courthouse and see for yourself. Nowadays, a great deal of court information is kept electronically and with little effort could be made readily available online to everyone.
How much of this information should be accessible is a question being asked in a consultation paper recently issued by B.C.'s Provincial Court. We should seize this opportunity to expand access to information, not further limit it.
As the discussion paper helpfully points out, the task is to strike the right balance among a number of important principles: The public's right to transparency in the administration of justice, individual privacy rights, fairness and the presumption of innocence.
On the one hand, courts exercise tremendous power – most obviously, of course, in criminal cases, where judges can impose sanctions and penalties all the way up to life imprisonment. But all court cases are about the exercise of state power, even if it is only to obtain an order requiring the payment of a debt. As the Supreme Court of Canada recently said, the transparency that flows from public access to the courts "ensures that justice is rendered in a manner that is not arbitrary, but is in accordance with the rule of law."
On the other hand, widespread publication of court information has obvious implications for personal privacy. Publicizing the details of a trial, even when the result is an acquittal, can sometimes cause as much stigma and shame as a conviction. Our innocence may be presumed, but it's hard to remember that when we watch crime stories on the nightly news.
Over the past several years, government and the courts have done a great deal of work to digitize court information. Recording this information electronically has undoubtedly improved court administration. But along the way policy decisions have been made about public access to this information. The result is that public online access is refused to such information as convictions for which a pardon has been granted, absolute and conditional discharges (after some time has elapsed), stays, withdrawals, and acquittals or dismissal of charges.
The principle underlying these restrictions is the idea that someone who has not actually been convicted of a criminal offence has a right to privacy that is more important than the principle of open courts. I take a different view.
Finding the right balance for competing principles is rarely easy, but that balancing exercise is often the moment when we have a chance to see the difference between what we really value and what we simply say we value.
There are legitimate circumstances where publication of court information should be restricted. Examples include where public disclosure would seriously undermine the integrity of law enforcement or expose witnesses to the risk of serious harm. This is not just about protecting privacy, it's something different and equally, if not more, important.
But fundamentally, we should nurture, not further erode, the principle of open courts.
When the state prosecutes someone for an offence it is essential to democratic accountability that this fact be public. We should know about it whether the person is convicted or acquitted, the charge is stayed or withdrawn, or there is a pardon, a peace bond, or whatever. All of it. We will not be able to ask the right questions about the exercise of power unless we know how and when it is being exercised.
The fact that information technology allows court information to be disseminated more widely is a good thing, not a bad thing. Understandably, a person who is acquitted of a crime wants the whole world to forget that he or she was ever charged, but truth doesn't work that way. It is appalling that innocent people can be dragged through the hell of wrongful prosecution or imprisonment, but the right response is not to organize official records to close the door of public access to what happened, but rather to open those doors as wide as we possibly can. The truth may sometimes hurt, but we won't learn how to prevent wrongs from occurring if we deny ourselves the opportunity to know what has happened.
It was easy to say that open courts are indispensable in free societies when the reality is that much of what the courts did was, as an Alberta judge once said, protected by the "practical obscurity created by the physical inconvenience of attending at each courthouse to examine the criminal dockets." Now technology offers the opportunity to overcome that inconvenience and test our commitment to the principle of open courts. We should embrace that opportunity. The exercise of state power must be subject to public scrutiny. That's our best protection against its misuse.
Geoff Plant was British Columbia's attorney-general from 2001 to 2005. He practises law with Gall Legge Grant & Munroe in Vancouver.