BCCLA applauds Attorney General De Jong’s decision to open access to court files

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association applauds the decision announced by Attorney
General Mike De Jong to reform policies and practices of court officials regarding public access
to court files and information. What had been shown, through recent media coverage of this
issue, to be a haphazard and inconsistent set of practices that impeded the ability of the press
and the public to see what goes on in the courts will soon be streamlined and the principle that
what goes on in court should be open and public will be clearly established as the rule all public
servants in the court process will have to follow.

Ensuring that the public sees and understands what goes on in the court process is a
fundamental part of democratic society. Secrecy leads to distrust and a lack of confidence.
Supreme Court of Canada judges have weighed in on this issue, upholding the principle of the
public and press to have access to court records. Justice Fish wrote that ―the administration of
justice thrives on exposure to light — and withers under a cloud of secrecy.‖ Examples through
history and around the world today amply demonstrate the dangers to freedom of ―courts‖ operating in secret and without accountability to the public for their processes and their decisions. Justice Fish added that basic freedoms of expression and communication ―depend for
their vitality on public access to information of public interest. What goes on in the courts ought
therefore to be, and manifestly is, of central concern to Canadians.‖ It is key that judicial
pronouncements favoring open courts be enforced through how the courts are administered.
That point appears to have been the impetus of this announcement by the Attorney General. The courts and court system should operate from the presumption that all materials filed with the court are open and available for the public to inspect, discuss and report on. Only in exceptional cases where, as the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled, disclosure would ―subvert the ends of justice or unduly impair its proper administration‖ should materials be sealed and withheld from public access. Denying access should never be considered routine.

BCCLA President Robert Holmes said, ―Reforming the practices of our court system so that the
public can see and hear, through their own efforts or through the efforts of the press, what goes
on in court is of great importance. The more the public can learn of how our courts operate, the
greater the understanding and appreciation the public will have for their work. Similarly, the more the court system understands that the public is entitled to scrutinize, debate and argue about what goes on in court, that they are the people’s courts and that they apply the laws that the people have democratically put in place and can reform, the more likely it is that courts will
remain in touch with the public they serve.


Toronto Star Newspapers Ltd. v. Ontario, [2005] 2 S.C.R. 188, 2005 SCC 41 >>


Media Contacts:
Robert Holmes 604-838-6856
Micheal Vonn 604-630-9753