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Tech issues, few requests limit cameras in court

Five cases featured in last three years

John Woods / The Canadian Press files</p></p>

John Woods / The Canadian Press files

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/2/2017 (957 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Plans to expand live broadcasting of court cases haven’t yet taken shape despite a pilot project to make Manitoba a leader in public access to the justice system.

The pilot project — the first of its kind in Canada — to allow TV cameras into courtrooms to record certain cases began nearly three years ago. Since then, live broadcasts of court proceedings have occurred on only five occasions, Manitoba Justice said.

Monday’s upcoming livestream of a provincial court judge’s verdict in the case of a Winnipeg mother accused of storing her six dead babies’ remains in a locker will be the first courtroom broadcast since 2014.

Technological difficulties, along with few requests from broadcasters and some judges exercising their authority to refuse cameras, have slowed down the project, which launched with support from chief judges at all three levels of Manitoba’s court system.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/2/2017 (957 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Plans to expand live broadcasting of court cases haven’t yet taken shape despite a pilot project to make Manitoba a leader in public access to the justice system.

The pilot project — the first of its kind in Canada — to allow TV cameras into courtrooms to record certain cases began nearly three years ago. Since then, live broadcasts of court proceedings have occurred on only five occasions, Manitoba Justice said.

Monday’s upcoming livestream of a provincial court judge’s verdict in the case of a Winnipeg mother accused of storing her six dead babies’ remains in a locker will be the first courtroom broadcast since 2014.

Technological difficulties, along with few requests from broadcasters and some judges exercising their authority to refuse cameras, have slowed down the project, which launched with support from chief judges at all three levels of Manitoba’s court system.

Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Judge Glenn Joyal said the court remains committed to expanding the project and working with TV stations to improve access.

"It’s important that people understand the pilot project is still alive. It hasn’t stopped… Its intensity and frequency subsided for technological reasons," he said.

A plan to set up a courtroom where any case could be broadcast live hasn’t materialized because of "infrastructural limitations" within the old Law Courts building, Joyal said, where the ability to send and receive cellular signals is limited.

Without a designated courtroom, the onus is on broadcasters to request permission to take in cameras. A spokeswoman for Manitoba Justice said there are no statistics on how many broadcast requests have been made since the beginning of the pilot project, and how many have been denied.

Joyal said it’s a combination of a lack of requests from broadcasters and refusals from judges.

John Woods / The Canadian Press</p><p>A videographer for CBC, sets up his camera in the courtroom of the Court of Queens Bench. </p>

John Woods / The Canadian Press

A videographer for CBC, sets up his camera in the courtroom of the Court of Queens Bench.

"Judges are using their discretion to deny a broadcast, and they do it for reasons that they set out. They’re rational reasons, I certainly wouldn’t criticize them but in some instances they’re based upon a set of concerns that represent worry about uncertainty," he said, adding that’s why it’s important for the pilot project to act as a laboratory "to determine where caution is justified and perhaps where it’s not. And then we’ll see the extent to which this can grow. But I think it’s important to be open and to be bold, particularly when we’re talking about the open court principle. We have nothing to be ashamed of and to the extent that some caution and restriction has to be put in place, we can do that," he said.

The courts are working with local TV stations to find technological solutions and expand the project, Joyal said.

Absent any opposition from the judge or Crown and defence lawyers, Global TV was granted approval to broadcast Monday’s verdict in the case of Andrea Giesbrecht, who is accused of six counts of concealing a child’s body. As per rules set out by the justice department, the camera will be focused only on provincial court judge Murray Thompson and will be switched off immediately after he finishes delivering his decision.

"As journalists, we’re always in favour of more transparency and more access. Being able to broadcast from the courtroom lets the audience see the proceedings first-hand," said Global Winnipeg news director Brent Williamson.

He said the station is working with the courts to gain more access while respecting Manitoba Justice’s policy for cameras in courtrooms, which restricts broadcasts of certain proceedings.

"Access like this to the courts is something that’s new and it’s somewhat unique to Manitoba, so it’s going to take a little bit of time for journalists to know which cases they can apply for (broadcast access to) and which ones they can’t."

Winnipeg media lawyer Bob Sokalski, who has been advocating for the broadcast of court proceedings for the past 20 years, said he’s disappointed the pilot project hasn’t been used more often, particularly with the recent rise of "alternative facts" and political rhetoric in the United States.

"I think those issues make it much more critically important to have camera access, and camera access has come in in baby steps," he said. "Those baby steps can be made bigger if the media makes more applications, and that enables the public to have the choice to see… from the horse’s mouth what a judge is saying, rather than having it filtered."

Privacy lawyer Andrew Buck said the possibility of expanding live broadcasts from courtrooms has to be weighed with the benefits — contributing to a more open and transparent court system — and the drawbacks, which include concerns about intimidation of witnesses or reluctance of citizens to participate in the legal process.

Buck said Manitoba Justice’s protocol for the pilot project seems to strike a good balance. It only allows judges and lawyers to be shown on camera and doesn’t allow the recording of any witness testimony.

"You can see when you look at that protocol, there are a couple of really important objectives it’s intended to address. One of them is respect for the court process, ensuring the ability for a fair trial and the ability for justice to be administered properly is not compromised. But I also think there’s a recognition of people’s privacy rights in there as well."

katie.may@freepress.mb.ca

Katie May

Katie May
Justice reporter

Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.

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