Tag Archives: media law

No privacy breach for reporting what’s on the court’s record

2 Sep

On August 10th, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice dismissed a privacy claim brought against the publishers of The Lawyer’s Weekly for reporting on the plaintiff’s involvement in a small claims court proceeding. The Court adopted the following defendant submission:

Further, recent developments in the common law regarding invasion of privacy have fallen well short of the cause of action asserted by Bresnark. On the facts of this case, there is no ‘intrusion upon seclusion’, nor even any disclosure of ‘private facts’. Indeed, the Article is wholly based on public court proceedings and the facts and findings disclosed on the record in those cases. Therefore, the cause of action asserted in paragraph 4 of the statement of claim should be struck as disclosing no cause of action. It is plain and obvious that it has no chance of success.

The Court also dismissed a defamation claim as statute-barred.

Bresnark v Thomson Reuters Canada Limited, 2016 ONSC 5105 (CanLII).

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Ontario court issues significant and conservative decision on scope of privacy tort

3 Sep

On August 31st, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice issued a significant decision on the scope of the common law privacy tort – both declining to recognize a cause of action based on “public disclosure of private facts” and articulating how the protection granted by the recognized “intrusion” tort is circumscribed by the interest in free expression.

The case involved a claim against the CBC that the plaintiff – a researcher and professor at Memorial University in Newfoundland – framed both in defamation and breach of privacy. The claim arose out of an investigative journalism program that the CBC aired about the plaintiff’s ethics. The plaintiff alleged wrongs arising out of the words the CBC used in its broadcast and the CBC’s “investigative techniques.” These techniques included receiving and using a confidential report from an anonymous source.

Justice Mew first declined to recognize a claim based on the alleged public disclosure of private facts (or false light publicity). He reasoned that the law of defamation adequately addressed the wrong at issue in the case before him in a manner that carefully balanced the competing interests at stake. He said:

The CBC defendants submit, and I agree, that to expand the tort of invasion of privacy to include circumstances of public disclosure of embarrassing private facts about a plaintiff, would risk undermining the law of defamation as it has evolved and been pronounced by the Supreme Court. To do so would also be inconsistent with the common law’s incremental approach to change.

Justice Mew did, however, allow the jury to consider the whether the CBC committed an intrusion upon the plaintiff’s seclusion because, unlike a defamation claim, an intrusion claim “focuses on the act of intrusion, as opposed to dissemination or publication of information.” This finding left the jury with a difficult exercise in balancing competing rights. In instructing the jury, Justice Mew articulated a kind of immunity for receiving confidential information from whistle-blowers (without the use of unlawful means) and drew upon the defamation defences to circumscribe the intrusion tort as follows:

If you conclude that the actions of the CBC did not breach any laws, were not actuated by malice, or did not fall outside the scope of responsible communication, there would be no basis upon which you can find the CBC defendants liable for invasion of privacy. As to what constitutes malice and responsible communication, you should apply the same considerations that pertain to the defences of fair comment and responsible communication described by me earlier in relation to the defamation claim. If you have considered those questions (4 and 5) and have concluded that the defence of responsible communication should succeed, then you should answer “No” to question 8, since it would be inconsistent with the recognition of the place of responsible communication in the balancing exercise that I mentioned just now if a journalist whose actions benefit from the protection of that defence in a defamation claim were to remain exposed to a claim for invasion of privacy arising from her journalistic activities. Put another way, the prerequisite that there must be no lawful justification for the invasion of a person’s private affairs or concerns will be hard, if not impossible, to satisfy if there has been a finding that such an invasion occurred during the course of responsible journalistic activities.

Chandra v CBC, 2015 ONSC 5303 (CanLII).

Case Report – Ont. C.A. considers pre-trial publicity, jury contamination and the internet’s long memory

5 Feb

On January 26th, a 3-2 majority of the Ontario Court of Appeal held that the mandatory ban on publication of bail proceedings when requested by an accused violates the Charter-protected right to freedom of the press and is not saved by section 1. The majority read down the Criminal Code ban so that it applies only to charges that may be tried by a jury.

All members of the panel agreed that the mandatory ban breached freedom of the press. They also agreed on the purpose of the ban:  to ensure a fair trial by promoting expeditious bail hearings, avoiding unnecessary detention and allowing accused to retain scarce resources to defend their cases. The panel members differed, however, on how to apply the Charter‘s saving provision, section 1.

The majority, in judgement written by Madam Justice Feldman, held that the ban was over-broad in its application to charges that may not be tried by a jury. While finding that judges are “professional decision-makers” immune to the influence of pre-trial publication, the majority was not willing to invalidate the legislation as it applied against juries given the conflicting social science evidence on the impact of pre-trial publication on jury decisions. It held that the legislature is entitled to act upon a “reasoned apprehension of harm” in enacting laws based on such disputed domains.

The minority, in a judgement written by Mr. Justice Rosenberg, held that the conflicting evidence was a basis for striking down the ban in whole (with a 12 month suspension). The minority held that the salutary effects of the ban did not outweigh its deleterious effects because the causal connection between pre-trial publicity and jury contamination is weak and speculative.

Both the majority and minority made comments on the internet and the concept of practical obscurity.  The majority said:

It is also, in my view, no longer appropriate or realistic to rely on jurors’ faded memories of any pre-trial publicity by the time of the trial as the basis for confidence that they will not remember what they read or heard. Once something has been published, any juror need only “Google” the accused on the Internet to retrieve and review the entire story.

The minority made a similar note:

On the one hand, the salutory effect of any publication ban is undermined by the ease with which the ban can be circumvented.  On the other hand, because of the nature of the Internet, information first published at the time of the bail hearing is always accessible, right up to the time of the trial.  In other words, the court cannot always simply rely upon the fact that time will have passed from when the information was first published and that this passage of time will lessen any prejudicial effects of the information.

On the whole, perhaps all that can be said about the efficacy of publication bans in the era of mass communication and the Internet is that the salutory and deleterious effects are uncertain.

The concept of practical obscurity is one favoring the maintenance of an individual’s privacy interest despite the disclosure of information because the information can be hard to find or recall.

For more detailed commentary, see the Court’s summary here.

Toronto Star Newspapers v. Canada, 2009 ONCA 59.

Case Report – SCC says informer privilege absolute

13 Oct

In a judgment released October 11th, the Supreme Court of Canada weighed the interest protected by the informer privilege against the interest in open courts. An 8 – 1 majority held that informer privilege is an absolute bar on the disclosure of an informer’s identity subject only to the innocence at stake exception.

The majority strongly affirmed the mandatory character of the informer privilege. Writing for the majority, Bastarache J. said:

The informer privilege rule is mandatory (subject only to the “innocence at stake” exception). To permit trial judges wide discretion in determining whether to protect informer privilege would undermine the purposes of the rule. Part of the rationale for a mandatory informer privilege rule is that it encourages would-be informers to come forward and report on crimes, safe in the knowledge that their identity will be protected. A rule that gave trial judges the power to decide on an ad hoc basis whether to protect informer privilege would create a significant disincentive for would-be informers to come forward, thereby eviscerating the usefulness of informer privilege and dealing a great blow to police investigations.

Despite this forceful position, the majority did leave open the possibility that the rule might be the subject of a Charter challenge. It was disinclined, however, to embark on a constitutional analysis in the circumstances because the appeal was of a discretionary order.

The core of the majority judgement is directed at how the judiciary should operationalize the privilege, for even though the privilege must always be respected it is clear that a judge also has a duty to apply it in a manner that minimally impairs the open court principle. The majority recognized that meeting this duty can be challenging for judges because the parties will frequently consent to an in camera process.

In recommending a model process to assist judges in meeting this challenge, the majority held that:

  • a judge can appoint an amicus curiae for the limited purpose of addressing whether the evidence supports the conclusion that a person is a confidential informer
  • the media does not have standing to address this question
  • the media may have standing after the privilege has been established in a second hearing to address the issue of minimal intrusion
  • members of the media should be provided with notice rather than be hand picked
  • whether notice to the media is given is a matter of the judge’s discretion
  • the media should not be provided with identifying information and, more generally, should only be provided with information essential to making an argument

LeBel J. was the lone dissenter. Unlike the majority he framed the contest as between a constitutionally-protected principle (open courts) and a judge made rule that promotes the administration of justice (the informer privilege). He held that an absolute rule was not warranted because the privilege is not an end in and of itself. He also suggested that the majority should have embarked upon a constitutional analysis even though a Charter challenge to the common law rule was not formally made. Given the qualifier made by the majority, LeBel J. may some day get another chance to make his point.

Named Person v. Vancouver Sun, 2007 SCC 43.