Case Report – OCA sets aside contempt order issued against journalist

Yesterday, the Ontario Court of Appeal held that a trial judge erred in finding a journalist in contempt and ordering him to pay over $36,000 in costs for failing to reveal the identity of a confidential source before the source was given a chance to come forward.

The journalist, Kenneth Peters of the Hamilton Spectator, was compelled to testify in a suit which alleged that two municipalities had improperly leaked confidential information to the media. The identity of his source was relevant, if not essential, to the claim.

Mr. Peters was first given an opportunity to testify only as to whether one of the defendants employed his source and, having refused, later given an opportunity to disclose the identity of an individual who accompanied his source but who had not been promised confidentiality. When Mr. Peters refused to answer this question, the trial judge ordered a hearing in which he was to “show cause” why the court should not find him in contempt. A day before the show cause hearing the confidential source came forward. The judge proceeded with contempt proceedings nonetheless, though he changed the charge to one of civil rather than criminal contempt.

In allowing the appeal, the Court of Appeal did not comment on the validity of the privilege claim other than stating that the trial judge ought to have assessed it against the Wigmore criteria, which in turn reflect the relevant Charter values. Instead, the thrust of the appeal judgement is about the restraint that judges should exercise in compelling testimony which reveals a source’s confidences when a claim of privilege fails. On this point, the Court’s essential finding is well-summarized from a quote it drew from a British Columbia Supeme Court judgement: “where members of the media are called to give evidence, it is incumbent upon courts to balance the necessity of having evidence before the court against the special role of the media as recognized by section 2(b) of the Charter.”

In the circumstances, the Court held that the trial judge did not show sufficient restraint:

At a minimum, the appellant should have been afforded the opportunity to consider his position in light of the fact that he had been ordered to disclose the confidential information. The appellant also should have been given the opportunity to consult with the confidential source to determine whether, in light of the court’s order, the source still insisted that the confidentiality be maintained.

Also based on the principle of restraint, the Court held that the trial judge erred in proceeding with a contempt hearing after the confidential source had come forward and erred in imposing a substantial costs award.

St. Elizabeth Home Society v. Hamilton (City), 2008 ONCA 182.

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