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Blind justice: The best way to open the eyes of the public to what is happening in our courtrooms is to allow cameras in

Scott Taylor
Special to the Sun

July 29, 2005

Brandishing her mighty sword in one hand, she's a legendary warrior in the never-ending battle between good and evil.

No, I'm not describing Xena Warrior Princess or even U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

I'm referring to Lady Justice, the creation of an unknown Greek or Roman sculptor, and a statue that has come to personify the basic elements of justice in a free and democratic society.

In her other hand Lady Justice holds aloft a balance scale, signifying the importance of fairness and equality for all before the law. And just in case anyone should decide to challenge these ideals, Lady Justice wields her sword, a not-so-subtle reminder of society's power to compel compliance with its laws, by force if necessary.

But if you look closely at the statue of Lady Justice, versions of which adorn many courthouses, including the Vancouver Courthouse, and decorate many lawyers' offices including my own (although on a much smaller scale), you'll also notice that Lady Justice wears a blindfold.

The blindfold, apparently added during the Middle Ages, a period notorious for artistic cover-ups, is supposedly intended to signify that Lady Justice must remain blind to outside influences.

But, does this also mean the public should remain blind to what is happening in its own courtrooms? I don't think so. I believe the best way to open the eyes of the public to what is happening in our courtrooms is to allow cameras in.

I'm not advocating cries of "lights, action and camera" in all courtrooms because there are obviously trials involving parents and children where cameras would not be appropriate. But I do believe that the use of cameras in selected criminal trials is appropriate.

One such criminal trial that will soon begin, and which holds profound interest and importance for both the public and victims' families alike, is the Robert Pickton murder trial. Why not allow the public at large, rather than just those able to attend a crowded courtroom, the opportunity to view these proceedings via a camera?

Regardless of the type of trial, in a free, just and democratic society, courts are vital public institutions. What better way to encourage public confidence in such an institution or to foster accountability of its public officials than by guaranteeing public transparency?

But what about the issue of the protection of the privacy of those witnesses, and others, whose identities will be broadcast for all to watch? This is a common concern mentioned by those opposing cameras. This is an important issue, but the public's right to know should trump an individual's right to privacy, with certain exceptions. In the event that the court deems it necessary to order a ban on publication to protect identities, or for other reasons, as has been ordered in several recent cases, then the same ban could apply to the use of cameras in the courtroom.

What is the position of the provincial government on cameras in the courtroom? A number of years ago, I approached our new attorney-general, Wally Oppal, when he was a sitting Supreme Court Justice. I asked about the possibility of introducing cameras into his courtroom to film a criminal trial where he would be the presiding judge.

We both agreed that this trial could potentially determine some important precedents involving the legal extent of police powers and the admissibility of evidence. As I recall, Oppal gave his enthusiastic blessing to the project, subject to working out some minor details, and I proceeded with my preparations. Unfortunately, I subsequently received written notice that the project had been quashed.

I don't remember who axed the project, whether it was a senior government bureaucrat or a senior member of the judiciary, but I clearly remember my frustration and disappointment.

I recently spoke about cameras again with Attorney-General Oppal. He said that his "position had not changed" and added that "the public has a skewed understanding of what happens in a courtroom because of what happens from U.S. television," which he acknowledged is "removed from reality."

He also mentioned that "we should do more to educate the public," but then said that it was not up to him as the province's chief law enforcement official to decide whether cameras should be used. Rather, he said it was up to individual judges to decide for themselves if they believed cameras would be "in the best interests."

Simply put, the attorney-general believes that "openness in a courtroom can be satisfied" by means other than having cameras in the courtroom.

I respectfully disagree. I believe the best way to educate the public and address any "skewed understanding" of the justice system is for the attorney-general's office to take a pro-active, rather than a "let's wait and see" (more accurately a "let's wait and not see") approach on the issue of cameras in the courtroom.

I should have reminded Oppal of that old legal maxim which he, no doubt, knows well, "Justice must not only be done, but it must also be seen to be done."

For true justice and understanding to flourish, it's time, Mr. Attorney-General, that you removed our blindfold.

Scott Taylor is a lawyer and legal analyst.

info@underappeal.com

 The Vancouver Sun 2005

Courtesy of
The Vancouver Sun

 

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Updated: August 21, 2016