Thursday, September 2, 2010

Judges are people, too. So let's see them

A recent conflict in a Winnipeg courtroom demonstrates again why cameras should be allowed in the courts.

In a murder trial on Aug. 30, sheriff’s officers alerted the judge that family members of the accused had complained someone was using a cell phone to record images of their relative.

The Winnipeg Free Press reports what Justice Glenn Joyal, associate chief justice of the Court of Queen’s Bench, general division, said next:

"If anyone takes a picture in this courtroom ... you'll be out of here so fast your head will spin," said Joyal. "So think twice. I won't have a lot of patience or tolerance for this type of thing."

Why are photos forbidden in the courtroom? Well, because judges say they are. Courtrooms were around before cameras.

Of course, there are legitimate concerns, for example identifying witnesses or accused people who are under 18 or whose identities need to be protected for other reasons. No reasonable person would argue about that. Restricting pictures of such people would be quite simple.

But this is a visual age. People, including the taxpayers who pay for the justice system, should be able to see what goes on in the courts.

News media have repeatedly offered to work with justice officials on demonstration projects that would open up the courts to television and still cameras, with restrictions to maintain decorum.

Such coverage would demystify the legal process and reduce the incentive for citizens to try to take their own unauthorized shots.

Judges, who are forbidden to answer criticism publicly, would benefit from such openness. It would reduce the amount of unfair criticism by ignorant columnists, bloggers and other commentators (not that such stuff ever meets your eyes, dear reader).

Jeffrey Oliphant, a former top Manitoba judge, has supported the idea of such projects. In fact, Oliphant’s public inquiry into the Mulroney-Schreiber affair was televised live, with no ill effects on anyone.

But we deserve to see criminal trials, too.


  1. Very interesting post, Duncan! The digital age surely changes everything but to have such devices with video capturing capability in courtrooms may not be the best route to go. I'm looking at the perspective of plaintiffs or people who are vicitmized by their aggressors and who have to appear in hearings. I can imagine & feel their anguish and the trauma of having to recall the violence they've experienced. Yes, the Candian public deserves to see such proceedings and see the transparency of such hearings but what guarantee can we give those victims who wish not to be photographed or their faces be seen on TV?... victims of crimes that are physical and sexual in nature have experienced so much emotional pain and anger; and to go through all those court proceedings to be cross examined over and over again, is torture in itself. I'm just wondering that if cameras were allowed in courtrooms, how responsible would those individuals be to keep the integrity of the court proceedings?... Are we simply talking about allowing cameras in hearings that concern public interest such as politicians or public figures involved in such cases? I believe that crimes heard in court whether it involve prominent figures or not, are definitely of interest to the public but would protecting the identity of the victims can be ensured like their photos not be taken or their faces be seen on cameras?... What about the general people watching the court proceedings? How will we guarantee that they won't abuse their liberty to document the proceedings with their mobile devices, for example?...

    You've mentioned really good points in this post and would be most applicable to those public servants involved in such controversies, and who hurt the public's trust. My questions in this comment may not be directly related to this particular news issue but somehow, it made me think what guidelines should be followed by the media, if such hearings can be covered to produce photos and videos?...I think that this would be a good topic for discussion. Just reminded me of the media law seminar we had last time. Again, great post!

  2. Interesting points, Desiree.
    My argument for cameras in the courtroom is based partly on experience. News media already exercise a lot of discretion in court coverage.
    For example, a year or so ago, TV stations broadcast security-camera video of a killing in a convenience store.
    The whole video, including the fatal shot, was evidence at the trial.
    But when the broadcasters aired the video, they stopped it before the actual shooting out of concern for the victim’s family.

  3. My feeling is that with the right amount of discretion, cameras could be used without undue harm to any of those involved.

    Considering that 90 per cent of cases never go to trial, my fear is that there'd be nothing to watch most of the time.

    As well, despite some popular belief, broadcast outlets would soon see how dull and unemotional most court proceedings are.

    Hardly compelling TV or radio. They'd move on shortly enough.

    Having the visual public record of these hearings, however, would be a benefit.

    I personally think this:

    Appeals court hearings, Civil jury trials [a good one is coming up in late September] and judicial inquests should be the testing ground for courtroom cameras in Manitoba.

    There is no reason — other than potential public embarrassment for some of those involved —  that the upcoming Brian Sinclair inquest should not be televised.