Criminal Law

Cameras should be welcomed in Canadian courtrooms: Forstner

By Peter Small, AdvocateDaily.com Contributor

Cameras will inevitably come to more Canadian courtrooms, where they will shine a welcome light on the justice system, says Oshawa criminal lawyer Lawrence Forstner.

“What we’re really talking about is the window on the court,” says Forstner, principal of Forstner Law.

“Right now, if you go into a courtroom, your eyes are the window. Just because you call it a camera doesn’t mean that’s not just another window on the court,” he tells AdvocateDaily.com.

The Saskatchewan Court of Appeal recently gave a media consortium permission to record and live stream the appeal of a first-degree murder conviction, CBC News reports.

This year, for the first time in more than a decade, the Ontario Court of Appeal allowed live streaming of a provincial-federal legal battle over carbon pricing, says The Canadian Press.

The Supreme Court of Canada has broadcast all of its hearings since the mid-1990s, and in Manitoba, cameras are allowed in select courts, Global News reports. The Federal Court of Appeal, the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal and the B.C. Supreme Court have all conducted pilot projects at varying times.

The debate over courtroom broadcasting has been raging for decades, with opponents saying it will rob families and victims of privacy and will change the behaviour of witnesses, juries, judges, and lawyers, Global News says.

Proponents say it would enhance the openness of our courts and possibly improve the behaviour of participants, the TV network reports.

Forstner counts himself among the supporters.

“Ultimately, that’s the train that’s coming,” he says. “The ubiquity of the technology is going to drive this.”

Televised or live-streamed proceedings are in keeping with the open court system under which anyone can come off the street and watch a trial, Forstner says.

The number of televised criminal proceedings will be small at first, but will likely proliferate to the point where even minor trials are shown, he says.

Forstner recalls watching the televised O.J. Simpson trial when he was still in school in the 1990s. It’s unlikely that Canadian televised proceedings will be surrounded by such a circus-like atmosphere, given our more demure culture, Forstner says.

“It’s ultimately a good idea if it’s done right,” he says. But it would require safeguards.

There should be a standard design for the placement of cameras to limit what the public can see, he says. The usual publication bans and witness identity protections would also have to be guaranteed, Forstner adds.

When the first major criminal trial is televised, large numbers will likely watch, but interest will wane as more trials come on stream, he says.

“When you start with high-profile test cases, that’s going to create great controversy, but if you are just showing run-of-the-mill trials, people are going to get bored with it awfully quickly,” Forstner says.

Among the benefits, live streaming will educate the public about the justice system, he says.

The system will improve as its flaws are exposed to a wider audience, and lawyers and judges will up their game knowing that they are being televised, Forstner predicts.

“There are cultural and regional biases, and all sorts of little attitudes and prejudices that infect a courtroom,” he says.

“I think justice seekers in the legal profession would say, ‘Shine a light on it.’ I don’t think the legal profession should fear it unless it’s got something to hide,” Forstner says.

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