The Federal Court of Canada recently launched a pilot project with the webcast of a five-day summary trial in January held in Vancouver, involving a tax law dispute over the collection and disclosure of taxpayer information to U.S. authorities.
Sean Robichaud, the founder of Robichaud’s Criminal Lawyers, says he’s encouraged by the project, noting that he gets a reminder of how little laypeople know about the inner workings of the justice system every time he runs a jury trial.
“It seems like the jury and the law students are seeing everything for the first time. That level of ignorance is not right,” he says.
“If we expect people to have respect for the courts, it’s only going to come through transparency.
“Hopefully, what will come of this initiative is that other courts will see they have nothing to fear and that, in fact, they are better off being more open,” Robichaud adds.
The recent Federal Court webcast was broadcast via video conferencing application Zoom, and while viewers were required to register with the service, a Federal Court news release noted that anonymous access was still possible since users did not have to provide a real name or email address.
Joseph Arvay, counsel to the claimant taxpayer, tells Law Times he was unfazed by the trial’s broadcast.
“It’s a very unobtrusive little camera,” Arvay says, adding that the case was an ideal candidate for the pilot project.
“You have considerable public interest issues that could affect people across Canada, but very few could actually attend in person,” he says.
“In cases like that, I think it’s a great idea,” adds Arvay, a veteran of numerous Supreme Court of Canada hearings, where video recording has become routine.
The top court’s 1981 Patriation Reference case was the first in the country to be televised live. Between 1993 and 1995, judges 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 subsequently began regularly broadcasting proceedings.
Since 2009, the Supreme Court has branched out even further, launching live webcasts and archiving video footage of hearings.
Outside of appeal courts, broadcasts are rarer, but there are occasional requests from media outlets to allow cameras in for high-profile criminal trials or portions of them.
For example, in Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Postmedia Inc. v. Sidhu, the Saskatchewan judge handling the case of Jaskirat Singh Sidhu, the accused in the Humboldt hockey bus crash, rejected a proposal to webcast sentencing arguments or victim impact statements following his guilty plea.
But broadcast of partial proceedings won’t cut it for Robichaud.
In fact, he says, the 2016 webcast verdict in the Alberta case R. v. Vader may have set the cause of cameras in the court back after the judge incorrectly convicted the accused of seconddegree murder, relying on portions of the Criminal Code previously found unconstitutional.
In Ontario, the province’s Courts of Justice Act generally prohibits the use of cameras in courtrooms.
However, a three-month pilot project prompted by the recommendations of the 2006 Panel on Justice and the Media, which included luminaries from the legal and media professions, temporarily lifted the blanket ban.
One courtroom at the Court of Appeal for Ontario was outfitted with cameras and microphones as a result, with 21 cases streamed online across 20 sessions during the course of the $365,000 project.
The panel would have gone further, calling for the broadcast of all proceedings in the Court of Appeal and the Divisional Court, as well as motions and applications in Superior Court that involved no witness examination.
According to the 2008 report on the pilot project, the court’s website logged 18,000 visits, while DVD copies were made available to accredited media and archived versions saved online for 90 days after the hearings.
Around 95 per cent of respondents interviewed for the evaluation said the project enhanced openness, while 85 per cent called for an expansion to other courts.
But a statement from Brian Gray, a spokesman with Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General, suggests Robichaud and other proponents of cameras in the courtroom should not hold their breath for fresh developments.
Describing the previous pilot project as “small, limited and quite costly,” Gray said the ministry “has no immediate plans to consider again any amendments to the Courts of Justice Act to allow a broader use of cameras in Ontario courts.
“But media continue to have the ability to make a formal request to the court to use cameras for particular proceedings,” he added.