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Dec. 7, 2021 | Tuesday
Editorials and Opinions
Editorial: Public information: Part 1
Editorial

The "open court" principle in Canada ensures that regular folks, the public, can trust that judicial matters are carried out fairly and openly, without bias or prejudice.

Many lay people don't understand that, other than instances involving minors, identities of sexual assault victims and many family law cases, most incidents that come before our courts are fully open to the public.

This means that anyone is free to watch, listen and, in the case of the media, report on what happens. And the vast majority of documents, including those used as exhibits, are supposed to be publicly available. Hence the term "public documents" is an important one in the court context.

The first cog in our justice system involves the police. They investigate and, in some cases, charge individuals, putting before the courts allegations to be weighed and tested by our independent judiciary.

In Canada, unlike some countries, everyone is presumed innocent until proven otherwise and trials are conducted publicly to ensure that justice is not only done, but seen to be done, openly and fairly. This is crucial for all involved, from the accused, to the victim, to the families of those affected, among others.

And this practice is fundamental to the functioning of our free, open and democratic society.

Once a person (or sometimes a corporation) is charged with an offence and information about the case is put before the courts, the basic particulars (who, what, where, when, why) of the case should be readily available to the public and the media. And note, we are not talking about releasing evidence in advance of trials or details that could compromise an investigation. Just basic information.

Unfortunately, in Niagara Region and in some other jurisdictions, that is not always the case. Information often is released selectively, at the sole discretion of the Niagara police bureaucracy, based on what the force decides should be available to the public or the media. This makes the police the enforcers of the law as well as the arbiters of what the public should know about any given incident. They are the gatekeepers.

In Niagara, it can be something as innocuous as what hospital a person has been taken to (a trauma unit at an out-of-town hospital, is a common phrase used by Niagara Regional Police). Or the street where an incident occurred. Or the name of a person killed. Or the name of someone charged with an offence, serious or otherwise.

In many instances the information being withheld is neither newsworthy nor consequential enough that the media or people in the community will even care to know all the details. Sometimes it is vital information.

That's not the point. The Canadian principle remains that once charges are laid and cases are moved to the court system, this public information should be available.

However, it is disconcerting, to say the least, when someone dies on a public roadway and an individual faces charges related to the fatal incident – and our police shield the identity of the accused from the public. It opens a Pandora’s Box of questions, concerns and doubts.

This has happened even though the police have submitted full information before the public courts.

It is plain wrong and an affront to the ideal of an "open" justice system.

Next: The cat-and-mouse game over who is accused?

 

Agree or disagree? Send us your thoughts at editor@niagaranow.com

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