Kathy English, the Toronto Star's public editor, questions why journalists are being blocked in obtaining information that would have been readily available to them had they been in public court to witness the proceedings.

 By Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star

When heading to court to seek out records of criminal court proceedings, reporter Jesse McLean has taken to dressing in the sort of smart suits lawyers wear in the hope that the court clerks who control access to this important information might be more helpful to him.

Reporter Jayme Poisson has found that it’s sometimes effective to beg court clerks for this information, which legal experts say should be readily available to journalists and the public. Other Star reporters have told me of times when one clerk refused outright to provide the requested information but a clerk down the hall did so readily.

Why are journalists being blocked in obtaining information from court proceedings that would have been readily available to them had they been in public court to witness those proceedings? Why is there so much discrepancy from courthouse to courthouse and from one court clerk to another in how Ontario’s policies on public access to records of criminal court proceedings are actually carried out from day to day?

As McLean reported this week, Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General is now reviewing its policies on media access to criminal court records in a bid to make our justice system more open and transparent.

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Given that the principle of open courts is at the heart of Canada’s justice system, it is well past time for this. Long overdue, considering the findings of a 2006 Panel on Justice and the Media report for the AG’s office that recommended the ministry adopt policies and procedures to enhance public access to court proceedings and court documents in line with the principles of openness.

That panel found there was uneven access to records in Ontario’s courthouses and unclear procedures regarding media inquiries: “The difficulties that reporters frequently encounter in finding and accessing information about a case was a source of considerable frustration,” the report stated.

A Toronto Star submission to the panel made clear then that “public documents are being withheld . . . with little or inconsistent explanations as to why.”

Talking about this with some Star reporters, it’s clear little has changed. As McLean wrote, an ongoing Star investigation into some associates of Mayor Rob Ford has found court staff are increasingly denying reporters access to important court records known as “the information.”

To continue reading this column, please go to thestar.com where it was originally published.

Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.