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British Columbia Restrict online access to court cases not resulting in conviction, B.C. judge says

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The chief judge of the Provincial Court says online access to cases in which a person was not convicted of a crime should be limited, a blow to media outlets that argued the court and its records should be as open as possible.

Chief Judge Thomas Crabtree announced a consultation regarding an online database, known as Court Services Online, in July.

The database, which is operated by the Court Services Branch of the B.C. Ministry of Justice, averages about 130,000 searches a month and provides online access to criminal records involving the Provincial Court, among other things.

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In a post-consultation memorandum posted to the Provincial Court website, Judge Crabtree says a person who has not been convicted should not be exposed to stigma.

He said information regarding acquittals, dismissals and withdrawals will only be available through Court Services Online (CSO) in the 30 days after the information is entered.

He said online access to cases involving stays of proceedings will cease one year after entry, and information regarding peace bonds will be unavailable once the peace bond has expired.

"On balance, the need to protect individuals who have not been convicted from misuse of court record information outweighs the desirability of broad online public access to information about such cases and the individuals affected," he wrote in the memorandum posted to the court website last week.

"While it may properly be suggested that identifying those who have been convicted of offences before the courts is consistent with the public interest, on balance, it cannot be fairly suggested that the public interest requires the ongoing exposure of individuals to public scrutiny through CSO when the criminal justice system has not sustained a criminal charge against them."

Judge Crabtree said information regarding acquittals, dismissals, withdrawals and stays of proceedings will continue to be available for journalists who visit a court registry in person.

Dale Bass, the B.C. and Yukon representative for the Canadian Association of Journalists, said the organization believes journalists "should have open access to this at any time."

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"It's 2016. Online access is essential," Ms. Bass, who is also the organization's chair, said in an interview Monday.

Vincent Gogolek, executive director of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, said Judge Crabtree's directives are "in the same ballpark" as the recommendations made by the association in its submission. The association said non-conviction information should not be available through Court Services Online. It said information about peace bonds should also not be accessible online, or should only be available as long as the bond is in effect.

Judge Crabtree said he received submissions that indicated Court Services Online was being used "in the rental market to determine the suitability of individuals applying for rental property."

Mr. Gogolek, in an interview, said people have been "suffering serious personal consequences for accommodation or employment as a result of information being used online."

Kevin Westell, a Vancouver defence lawyer, said he believed Justice Crabtree's directives were well-reasoned.

"It's a really difficult thing, as technology advances, to continue to keep the balance between the public's right to know and an individual's privacy," he said in an interview.

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A spokesperson for B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, who sent a submission to the chief justice, said she was unavailable for an interview.

Ms. Denham's submission said the open court principle ensures the public can know what is happening in the courts but, in some instances, individuals who are involved in court proceedings may have a right – or at least an expectation – of privacy.

A spokesperson for B.C. Minister of Justice Suzanne Anton said the ministry could not provide a response to the chief justice's memo Monday.

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