Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Courts tiptoe into future

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A Manitoba judge says the introduction of a TV camera in a courtroom this week as part of a pilot project "is a great first step," but it might more accurately be described as a timid, baby step.

There are no plans, for example, to allow cameras to cover trials or hearings with live witnesses.

The case to be heard this week in front of a camera involves a verdict in a murder case; later this month, Manitobans will be allowed to watch on TV or their computer an appeal in another homicide. The third case has not yet been announced.

The debate over what role, if any, TV cameras should have in the courts has been going on for more than a decade, if not longer, but the justice system is obviously still uncomfortable with the idea of an unblinking eye in the room, even though the information conveyed by camera is strictly factual.

An open court is fundamental to the justice system because it boosts public confidence in the integrity of the system and understanding of the administration of justice.

Except in limited cases, the public has a right to attend all court proceedings, regardless of the inconvenience or discomfort it might cause witnesses and other court participants.

Refusal to allow cameras in a courtroom is tantamount to denying the public its basic right to see justice being done.

The days when large courthouses in small communities gave everyone a chance to watch justice in action are long over. Today, cameras are the only means by which the vast majority of citizens can observe the justice system.

Legal officials frequently complain the general public is uninformed about sentencing principles and court procedure, but they are loath to implement new measures to help mitigate the problem.

That's because there is still an unreasonable concern cameras will somehow alter the evidence, inhibit witnesses or undermine decorum by the simple act of passive observing.

No one is suggesting the adoption of American-style Court TV and its game-show atmosphere.

The idea, however, that cameras would taint the proceedings is outdated, invalid and unsubstantiated by any evidence.

The courts have taken a small step forward, but they have a long way to go to enhance public access and the concept of a truly open court.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 16, 2014 A8

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Updated on Wednesday, April 16, 2014 at 6:59 AM CDT: adds image

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