Culture Clash in Les Palais de Justice

Three years ago, the Quebec Ministère de la Justice published an exhaustive guide for relations between the media and the courts. The guide imposed access restrictions on journalists, who wanted much broader access to film, take photographs and conduct interviews in the public areas of courthouses, and they also want to broadcast the official audio recordings of court proceedings.. It was challenged constitutionally by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Groupe TVA, La Presse Ltée and the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec, as a breach of constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and media freedoms. After a seventeen day trial, Lagacé J. of the Superior Court dismissed the application, and this was upheld by the Cour d’Appel, which split on whether a ban on broadcasting recordings was constitutionally defensible. The Supreme Court of Canada agreed on Friday that the media’s activities were protected by s. 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but held that the limits on them imposed by the Guide were justified by section 1 of the Charter. The media lost at every level.

The judgment of the court – and that of an accompanying judgment on access and broadcasting exhibits tendered in evidence at trial – was written by Justice Deschamps.

The restrictions were imposed through a number of norms, embodied in rules 38.1 and 38.2 of the Rules of practice of the Superior Court of Québec in civil matters, R.R.Q., c. C‑25, r. 8, ss. 8.A and 8.B of the Rules of Practice of the Superior Court of the Province of Quebec, Criminal Division, 2002, SI/2005‑19, and Directive A‑10 of the Ministère de la Justice du Québec entitled Le maintien de l’ordre et du décorum dans les palais de justice.

Directive A‑10 is an unusual phrase. The other Simon said from Orléans that the words Directive A‑10 struck him as being out of The Avengers – for me the echo is with The Prisoner. But back to the Supreme Court.

The key provisions which were scrutinized by the Supreme Court yesterday were:

L’intérêt accru des médias pour l’activité judiciaire et les débordements survenus au cours des dernières années ont amené le ministère de la justice, en tenant compte des orientations de la magistrature à cet égard, à revoir ses pratiques en vue d’encadrer davantage les événements à caractère judiciaire qui suscitent l’intérêt du public et des médias dans les palais de justice. [Increased media interest in judicial activities and the excesses that have occurred in recent years have led the Ministère de la Justice, taking the views of the judiciary in this respect into account, to review its practices with a view to establishing more effective rules to govern situations in which judicial proceedings generate public and media interest in courthouses.]

En conséquence, la Direction générale des services de justice, à titre de principal occupant et de responsable des palais de justice, adopte les règles suivantes, afin d’assurer la saine administration de la justice, la sérénité des débats judiciaires et le respect des droits des justiciables et des témoins. [As a result, the Direction générale des services de justice, as the main occupant of and authority responsible for the courthouses, adopts the following rules to ensure the fair administration of justice, the serenity of judicial hearings and the respect of the rights of litigants and witnesses.]

Dans les lieux publics qui relèvent de la Direction générale des services de justice, et dans le contexte des audiences judiciaires:[In public areas that fall under the authority of the Direction générale des services de justice, and in the context of court hearings,]

Bien que la libre circulation des usagers des palais de justice soit la règle, les consignes de sécurité générales ou ponctuelles doivent être respectées. (ex. : cordon de sécurité, périmètre de sécurité). [Although free movement of courthouse users is the rule, general or specific safety instructions must be complied with (e.g., cordoned‑off areas and security zones);]

il est interdit d’entraver, de gêner la libre circulation des usagers ou de leur obstruer le passage; [obstructing or hindering the free movement of users or blocking their passage is prohibited;]

il est interdit de harceler ou de pourchasser des personnes dans les palais de justice et sur les parvis, y compris avec des caméras et des microphones; [harassing or following persons in and in front of courthouses, including with cameras and microphones, is prohibited]

sous réserve des règles applicables dans les salles d’audience des tribunaux, l’enregistrement sonore ou visuel d’une personne n’est permis que sur les parvis et, sauf autorisation expresse du directeur du palais, qu’à l’intérieur des zones désignées par des pictogrammes dans le palais de justice; [subject to the rules applicable in courtrooms, audio or visual recording of a person is permitted only in front of a courthouse and, inside a courthouse, only, unless otherwise expressly authorized by the director of the courthouse, in areas designated by pictograms];

par contre, il est permis de demander à une personne de donner une entrevue, sans toutefois lui obstruer le passage ni l’empêcher de circuler librement; [it is permitted to request an interview from a person, but not to block the person’s passage or to prevent him or her from moving about freely;]

lorsqu’une personne consent à donner une entrevue impliquant un enregistrement sonore ou visuel, celle-ci doit se tenir à l’endroit du palais de justice prévu à cette fin et désigné par pictogramme; [if a person consents to give an interview involving audio or visual recording, the interview must take place in the area of the courthouse designated for this purpose, as identified by pictograms];

toute personne visée par les règles énoncées plus haut doit s’y conformer sous peine de mesures pouvant aller jusqu’à l’expulsion par les constables spéciaux et les agents de sécurité chargés de les faire respecter. [all persons to whom the above rules apply must comply with them, and failure to do so may result in action up to and including expulsion by the special constables and security officers responsible for enforcing the rules.]

L’emplacement des pictogrammes est déterminé, après consultation de la magistrature et des responsables de la Sécurité publique, en fonction des critères suivants :
– l’accès aux salles d’audience et la libre circulation des personnes impliquées dans les affaires judiciaires;
– l’accès du public et des médias à l’information judiciaire;
– l’ordre, la sérénité et le décorum des lieux où la justice est administrée;
– aucun accès visuel à l’intérieur des salles d’audience n’est autorisé.
[The locations of pictograms are to be determined, after consultation with the judiciary and with officials from the Ministère de la Sécurité publique, on the basis of the following criteria:
– access to courtrooms and free movement of persons involved in court proceedings;
– public and media access to judicial information;
– order, serenity and decorum in places where justice is administered; and
– no line of sight to courtroom interiors is authorized.

Media reaction was fast and negative: here is a Press Release from la Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec, Cyberpresse’s story, Rue Frontenac, Canoe, and Radio Canada itself.

I found the judgment slightly troubling in the method of analysis it offers. I would worry if other courts across Canada regarded the norms applicable in Québec as having been blessed by the top court. That would solidify an approach which is too rigid for the evolving world of today’s new media. Indeed it sits oddly with the Supreme Court’s own initiatives to be more open to the media and the ground-breaking appearance of Chief Justice McLachlin on Steve Paikin‘s TVO show.

The judgment focuses on a document which is very much the product of a specific situation in space and time. The Québec guide stemmed from incidents of scrum journalism in 2003-2004, which prompted the establishment of a working group that looked at the problems facing the courts. The work of that group was implemented by the Direction générale des services judiciaires, in the Directive A-10, Le maintien de l’ordre et du décorum dans les palais de justice, émise le 23 juin 2005. But it assumes a very traditional media approach which may not work well with citizen journalism in which every mobile phone is a camera.

Indeed the arguments in the judgment were all canvassed almost thirty years ago by my friend David Lepofsky in his Harvard thesis for Archibald Cox, published as Open Justice – the Constitutional Right to Attend and Speak About Criminal Proceedings in Canada. The court cited remarks by Edward L. Greenspan in a comment on a panel discussion at a law school in 1984, a criminology article that suggests that the media can be a source of victimization, and even a law review piece about the outrageous farce of the O.J. Simpson trial before the hapless Judge Lance Ito. Arguments from extremes.

Will this judgment also colour the courts’ approach to new media? That is an open question.

If my judge friends have reached this far, I would recommend that you read the recent report of the Conference of Court Public Information Officers’ New Media Project, and close the door to your chambers, switch your speakers up and enjoy this embedded video from Erik Qualman, with soundtrack by Fatboy Slim.

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