‘Public’ file anything but: Access denied in dog photo case

By Tracey Tyler
Toronto Star Legal Affairs Reporter

It was only a picture of a dog. But it was guarded like a state secret.

Somewhere in an Ontario court file there’s a photo of Kalar, a puppy at the centre of a civil trial that led to a $14,000 damage award and legal bills of $160,000.

But gaining access to this public file would prove an expensive endurance test, one that would require a 266-kilometre trip at taxpayers’ expense and, potentially, the intervention of a judge.

Today is World Press Freedom Day. But in Ontario, journalists often have problems getting basic public information about the justice system – access to court exhibits is denied, photocopying charges are typically $2 a page and publication bans are sometimes imposed without notification.

It’s not just a source of frustration for the media; the openness of the justice system is also a “critical” public issue, says Osgoode Hall Law School Professor Jamie Cameron, a vice-president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Many of the difficulties can be seen in Kalar’s case, which the Star tried to look into as part of its series on access to the justice system.

Although the case files were stored in Mississauga, government rules dictate court files can only be viewed where the trial has taken place. This meant a three-hour round trip drive to Welland. The files journeyed down the Queen Elizabeth Way at taxpayers’ expense.

Since the case centred around an exuberant 4-month-old puppy who bounded over a woman in a park, looking at the dog’s picture seemed logical. But that, court officials said, would require a judge’s order. And that would require hiring a lawyer and bringing a motion before the court, which could take months and cost thousands.

Public faith in the government depends on being able to scrutinize its operations and on the press for accountability when things go wrong, Cameron said. She noted the Supreme Court of Canada has endorsed this concept in ” the strongest terms,” saying court proceedings must be accessible, particularly to the media.

In Ontario, Attorney General Michael Bryant recently established a committee to identify systemic problems and improve the relationship between journalists and court officials. But its composition is already drawing criticism.

An association of media lawyers wrote to Bryant last month, arguing the committee, comprised of two journalists and 10 representatives of the justice system, “does not fairly represent” the interests of the media and public at large – and that in fact one government lawyer on the committee has frequently appeared in cases opposing media access to the courts.

Brendan Crawley, a spokesperson for the attorney general’s ministry, said the committee reflects an advisory panel recommendation to have police, legal organizations, the media, judiciary and government represented.

However, membership of similar committees in Nova Scotia and the U.S. is divided evenly between journalists and justice officials.

One committee in Connecticut posts its meeting agendas and minutes online, and is working on a protocol for electronic access to court documents.

In Ontario, such openness can be hard to find.

After travelling to Welland, spending $61 to view the file and $100 on photocopying court documents, the Star’s attempts to see the public document ended when a judge’s order was demanded before releasing the exhibits.

Kalar’s picture stayed in the file.

Court gestures

The Ontario Justice and the Media Panel was created in 2005. It issued its report late last year.

What it recommended:

Better access to court documents, affordable photocopying fees, electronic notification of publication ban requests, media contacts at each court location, limited televising of court proceedings, educational programs for court officials, set up media-justice committee.

What’s been done

: Media contact person named at each court location, educational programs being developed, Justice-Media Liaison Committee established, pilot project for cameras in court.

Originally published in the Toronto Star, May 3, 2007. Republished by permission.