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Riot police in Vancouver June 15, 2011. (JOHN LEHMANN/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Riot police in Vancouver June 15, 2011. (JOHN LEHMANN/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Riot TV: When do cameras belong in court? Add to ...

The first of the broadcast applications will be heard on Feb. 10 in Vancouver Provincial Court, for the sentencing hearing of Ryan Dickinson. Mr. Dickinson last month became the first person charged in connection with the riot to enter a guilty plea. He faced one charge of participating in a riot and one of breach of recognizance connected with an earlier assault charge. In exchange, the Crown agreed to drop two counts of mischief over $5,000. Eric Warren, Mr. Dickinson’s lawyer, has said even with the plea deal, his client expects to serve jail time.

Mr. Warren said his client would oppose any application to have his image broadcast. (Other lawyers have followed suit, although their clients have pleaded guilty.) Supreme Court guidelines say written consent of named parties is necessary for a broadcast application to be approved. The Provincial Court is free to make its own decision, although it can use the Supreme Court as a reference point.

The early broadcast applications are expected to set a precedent.

B.C.’s Legal Services Society has retained criminal lawyer Greg DelBigio to handle broadcast arguments for those using legal aid, such as Mr. Dickinson. Mr. DelBigio declined to be interviewed ahead of next week’s hearing.

He wasn’t alone in that regard. When a Globe and Mail reporter asked about the riot cases this week, Ms. Clark walked away. Attorney-General Shirley Bond turned down repeated interview requests.

Case opened the door

Dan Burnett was the media lawyer who successfully argued for cameras in the courts in 2000. The Korean sailors were eventually found not guilty of smuggling Chinese migrants into Canada.

In an interview, Mr. Burnett said he’s somewhat surprised at the slow pace of the debate since then. The rest of the world has embraced the electronic age, he said, while B.C. courts toil in the pencil and paper era.

“Like most things in the court system, there’s a whole lot of tradition and a whole lot of resistance to changing the way we do things, so it can take a long time for a change in the way the world works outside the courts to be reflected inside,” he said.

Mr. Burnett, who also argued for the broadcast in the polygamy reference, said one of the ways for change to occur might be for the Crown, as it will in the riot cases, to ask for it.

Whatever the outcome, he expects much more progress in the coming decade when it comes to technology in the courts than in the preceding one.

“Ultimately, it’s going to change. It has to. It’s just the way the world is these days,” he said.

Privacy is a concern

The Supreme Court of Canada has permitted television coverage of all its hearings since the mid-1990s. But, as Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin remarked during a speech at Carleton University this week, an appellate court’s proceedings are much different from those of a trial court.

Chief Justice McLachlin said one concern is the privacy of victims and witnesses “who may be transformed from quiet citizens to dinner-table topics overnight.” Witnesses might also be tempted, consciously or unconsciously, she said, to tailor their evidence to be viewed in a more favourable light.

“The Supreme Court’s experience with television and webcasting has been positive,” the chief justice said. “However, this does not mean that other courts ought necessarily to follow our lead. … We hear no witnesses. With our fixed cameras, there is no possibility of disrupting the decorum of the court, nor, given the nature of the debate before the court, any real risk of sensationalization or trivializing the hearings.”

Bentley Doyle, communications director for the Trial Lawyers Association of B.C., said the group’s members are split on cameras in the court. Mr. Doyle said more members might accept riot cases being broadcast if the Crown was asking for only sentencing to be public. Prosecutors will request other parts of trial proceedings be broadcast as well.

Chief Justice Bauman agrees privacy interests must be carefully weighed.

He reiterates he has no problem with parts of trials being televised, opening the courts up in a way rarely seen since 2000.

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