Grievance journalism: restricted access inspires series

Three Victoria Times-Colonist journalists, frustrated by repeated delays in accessing public court documents, decided to conduct an experiment with the BC court system. What they found – that the public is routinely and wrongly denied access to information – inspired an award-winning series. Reporter Rob Shaw shares the story behind the series, which recently won the Canadian Bar Association’s Justicia award for excellence in legal journalism.

UPDATE: read Toronto Sun editor-in-chief James Wallace’ response.

In a reporter’s beat, it’s often the tiny frustrations that can build into the biggest stories. Such was the case at the Victoria courthouse earlier this year, where three reporters from the Victoria Times Colonist (myself included) reached a tipping point about the uneven access to public documents at the court registry.

The result was a four-day special report called “Access Denied” that explored how the public faces uneven access to court documents because of outdated provincial policies, and poorly-trained courthouse clerks who inconsistently apply the rules.

The frustrations that gave rise to this series were different for each of us.

“Sorry, the justice of the peace just removed it from the folder as you were looking at it. She figures the Crown forgot to seal the warrant, and she’s pretty sure they’ll want to put it under wraps — especially now that you’ve asked to see it.”

Myself and colleague Lindsay Kines were pursuing a story about a former B.C. government employee who was fired when he was found with sensitive personal information in his Victoria condo about 1,400 income assistance clients. We wanted access to an unsealed search warrant the RCMP had filed at the Victoria courthouse about the case. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 1982 that such warrants should be easily accessible for the public to read. Yet we faced an uphill battle and numerous bizarre roadblocks when dealing with the courthouse clerks in Victoria. (One request was met with “Sorry, the courthouse staff say you can look at the warrant, but only the suspect or his lawyer get a copy. By the way, are you the suspect? No?”)

We had a suspicion we weren’t being treated fairly and we guessed (correctly, we’d later learn) that the roadblocks we faced weren’t supported by the rules that govern BC’s provincial courts practices. Those rules seemed to vary from courthouse to courthouse. This frustration formed the initial idea for the series.

We sought the help of Times Colonist courts reporter Louise Dickson, who had her own list of grievances with getting access to court documents, exhibits and transcripts. She’d recently spent weeks trying to obtain a transcript of a murder trial for a Victoria man that was held in Vancouver. But the Supreme Court registry in Vancouver told her that because the trial was over, the tapes were locked away and only the judge could approve their release. The judge was on holiday. Louise was on deadline. By the time her transcripts were processed (weeks later) she’d already published her story with as much detail as she could gather. She learned that not every courthouse requires a judge to sign off on releasing trial tapes for transcription; had the case been heard in Victoria or New Westminster, for example, a judge’s approval would not have been necessary.

For each of us, these experiences left us wondering if there was a larger story about uneven access to information at B.C.’s courthouses. So, a Times Colonist team posed as ordinary members of the public and asked for documents that should have been easy to obtain at 10 courthouses on Vancouver Island and Metro Vancouver. If we were asked who we were – which was not often – we were honest about being reporters. We made a list of things the public should be able to ask for at a courthouse (including criminal files and search warrants) then went and asked for them and wrote down what happened. The results – that the public is routinely and wrongly denied access to information – formed the backbone of our series.

“Criminal file: I was not asked my name or occupation, and my request for a copy of the charge in a sexual assault file was initially met in full with no names deleted. But when I asked whether a publication ban was in place, the copy of the charge was withdrawn. Eventually, another registry employee told me that the Crown would be taking the file back into court that morning to have a publication ban put in place. She was uncertain what type of ban would be imposed, but she said I now would be unable to get a copy of the charge information that I’d had in my hands a few minutes earlier. – Duncan, B.C. – Lindsay Kines”

There’s little doubt the stories have had impact on provincial policy. B.C. Attorney General Mike de Jong promised to revise aging court access policies so that they have a “presumption in favour of releasing information.” We suggested a meeting between media representatives and provincial officials on proposed changes, similar to a roundtable on court access held in Ontario, and such a meeting was called relatively quickly – this means that they’re willing to listen, and will consider our suggestions when drafting the new policy. The judges have also taken notice, and the Provincial Court resurrected its long-dormant idea to revamp its media guide, in consultation with reporters.  De Jong also scrapped a $6 online search fee for the province’s electronic court registry after it was criticized by lawyers and experts in our series. The fees were lifted Aug. 31. It’s our hope that many of the new provincial rules will be introduced within a month, and that, fairly soon, people who want to access B.C.’s court system will have a comprehensive guide to what records they are allowed to get, and how to get them, posted at every courthouse registry in the province.

Rob Shaw, Lindsay Kines and Louise Dickson are reporters for the Victoria Times Colonist. Their series “Access Denied” was originally published Feb. 4-7, 2010. It won the 2010 Justicia Award for Excellence in Legal Journalism.