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Cameras still elusive in courts


TORONTO—Jian Ghomeshi is set to return to court next week for his judgment and as his case resumes, so will the torrent of tweets that drew Canadians into the trial, giving them a full picture of the courtroom—except in the literal sense.

Throughout the former CBC Radio host’s sexual assault trial, journalists reported testimony and colour in volume and detail that’s rare for a court case.

For some, it raised the question: why, with that level of real-time reporting, are cameras not allowed in most courtrooms?

Canadians can watch as wrestler Hulk Hogan sues the website Gawker over a sex tape and will recall in vivid detail how O.J. Simpson pulled on a leather glove at his murder trial.

But for many, the workings of their own court systems remain a mystery.

Policies vary from province to province, with access the most restricted in the larger provinces.

But what varies even more widely is the desire for change.

Ontario’s Attorney General Madeleine Meilleur didn’t beat around the bush when asked if there was any appetite for cameras in courts.

“To tell you the truth, no,” she said in a recent interview.

The province ran a pilot project in 2007 with cameras in the Court of Appeal, and though a subsequent report deemed it an overwhelming success, there has been little movement on the issue since.

Other provinces such as British Columbia and Saskatchewan also have tested the waters.

Nova Scotia has webcast some appeals and class-action cases when there are media requests.

But the biggest push is coming from Manitoba, where the chief justices have designated courtrooms that presumptively are open to broadcast.

The project that began in 2014 focused on cases with a strong public interest and did not include any involving witness testimony, Appeal Court Chief Justice Richard Chartier noted.

“We like to proceed on a step-by-step approach in order to provide a certain comfort level,” he said.

The pilot project is now on hold, not because of any concerns but in order to allow for easier media access.

Part of the agreement was that the media could use clips from court on newscasts, but the entire proceeding had to be livestreamed somewhere.

The satellite costs, however, were proving prohibitive, Chartier said.

Now the court is investigating the possibility of technological upgrades, such as fibre optic cable, to make it more cost-effective for the media.

Most courts don’t have the bandwidth or infrastructure to support video broadcasting, and it would be a costly venture, said Ontario Superior Court Justice Fran Kiteley, who also is the co-chair of the Canadian Centre for Court Technology.

The concerns of witnesses also are a significant driver of opposition to cameras in courts.

“Everybody who’s involved in a criminal proceeding, be it accused or witnesses, for the most part they don’t want to be there and witnesses or victims’ families or accused, they all have the choice whether or not to talk to the media,” noted lawyer Emma Rhodes.

“When you have cameras in the courtroom, you take that choice away.”

Rhodes says “there’s a million reasons” why she is against cameras in courts, but would be fine with broadcasts from appeal courts since those proceedings tend to only involve lawyers.

Lawyer Sean Robichaud, a staunch cameras-in-courts advocate, believes the hesitation stems from a fear of greater scrutiny.

“Even five years ago, I think there was a lot of reluctance for the same reasons about live tweeting,” he noted.

“And every step along the way as technology develops, we always see this reluctance for anyone in the justice system to embrace it.

“Primarily it’s frustrating to watch, as a lawyer, to hear about people talk about the justice system and there’s so little that’s actually known about it,” Robichaud added.

“What’s often being described to you is a system that isn’t ours, it’s more indicative of the American justice system,” he said.

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