SCC Considers Media Access to the Courts

In Canada Broadcasting Corp. v. Canada (Attorney General), 2011 SCC 2, the Supreme Court of Canada considered the extent to which the media should have unrestrained access to courthouses and whether the media could broadcast official court audio recordings of proceedings.

The genesis of the case was the passage of rules restricting the areas within certain Quebec courthouses in which reporters could conduct interviews or photograph participants.  While not completely barred from undertaking such activities, the reporters were prevented from doing so in areas in which they had previously operated.  Moreover, the rules prevented the broadcasting of audio recordings of proceedings, both the official recordings as well as recordings made by the reporters themselves.

The Court analysed the case as a question of a restriction on freedom of expression, of which the freedom of the press is an integral part.  Moreover, the Court recognized that media access to the courts is essential to a meaningful “open court” principle, as the vast majority of Canadians obtain their information about, and understanding of, court proceedings from media coverage.

Nevertheless, the Court found that the restrictions, while infringing freedom of expression, were justifiable under the Charter.  Notably, the Court found that it was reasonable to preserve a necessary level of decorum and serenity of hearings, which are essential to the proper administration of justice.  Apparently, the Court was concerned that the ability (and willingness) of witnesses to testify in proceedings was being compromised by the concern over being photographed or subjected to unsolicited questions and interviews.  It was also feared that the broadcast of audio recordings would have a similar detrimental effect, in addition to being overly invasive of the privacy of participants in the process.  Thus, the unrestricted media access was felt to be affecting the proceedings themselves, and potentially undermining trial fairness and the quest for truth.

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