Access to court exhibits a public right: appeals judge

Journalists have long faced barriers while trying to access court
exhibits, but The Ontario Court of Appeal has ruled that full public
access to the courts includes the right to documents, video and material
that help explain a case.

The court ruled that the CBC could see and make copies of exhibits in the Ashley Smith case, where four prison guards were charged in the teenager’s 2007 death in a Kitchener prison cell. The CBC originally sought access to the exhibits, which include a video of the young woman’s death, for a fifth estate documentary Smith.

The Correctional Service of Canada denied the CBC access to exhibits that included video of the young woman’s death. The Toronto Star reports that at the time, Correctional Services “argued an open justice system only entitles the public and media to attend court and report on what is said, not access to exhibits filed in a case.”

The appeals court ruled 3-0 in favour of the CBC, with Justice Robert Sharpe rejecting the argument entirely. He wrote that the principals of an open court, along with the media’s right to access court proceedings,”must extend to anything that has been made part of the record.”

The Toronto Star‘s Tracey Tyler writes:

“Access to exhibits can now be denied only if there is convincing evidence it would cause a serious risk to the administration of justice and the benefits of denying access outweigh interests such as freedom of expression.”

Tyler also quotes Bert Bruser, a lawyer who acts for the Star. “This is a very significant and important decision,” Bruser told the Star. “Journalists have been struggling for years and years, trying to get exhibits to court proceedings and have been met with all sorts of resistance by court officials.

“Committees have been formed, with lawyers, judges and journalists, and nothing has happened. Now, the Court of Appeal has said, ‘C’mon guys. The public is entitled to exhibits filed in court.'”