Revisiting the Open Court Principle in an Era of Online Publication: Questioning Presumptive Public Access to Parties' and Witnesses' Personal Information.

Author:Bailey, Jane

OPENNESS OF COURTS CAN serve laudable purposes, not the least of which are transparency of government and court systems and access to justice, although accounts of the open court principle's meaning, breadth, and underlying purposes have expanded and shifted over time. Currently in Canada the adherence to the principle has meant presumptive access to almost all aspects of court cases, including access to personal information about parties and witnesses, encompassing not only information contained in court judgments, but also information contained in documents filed in court offices. Historically, not-withstanding this presumptive access, practical obscurity has protected much of this information, in that most people will not trouble themselves to physically attend court offices in order to review records filed there. While the practical obscurity generated by having to physically access court records made it difficult for the public to interact with and understand the law and legal outcomes by, for example, imposing a barrier to public access to court judgments, it also protected privacy by minimizing the likelihood of widespread public inspection of personal information about witnesses and litigants. Moving court records online makes those records more easily accessible and thereby undermines practical obscurity. This change offers the benefit of improving public access to law and legal reasoning, but in the online context, maintaining a default in favour of presumptive access could also have devastating effects on privacy. Unfettered online access removes the inconveniences and personal accountability associated with gaining physical access to paper records, not only opening up public access to court judgments, but also opening up sensitive personal information to the voyeuristic gaze of the public. We take the position that in this context, presumptive access to personal information about parties and witnesses jeopardizes the fundamental human right to privacy without substantially contributing to the underlying values of the open court principle: transparency and access to justice. Ultimately, we suggest that mechanisms to reintroduce friction into the process of gaining access to personal information ought to be taken to rebalance the public interest in open courts with the public interest in the protection of privacy.

LA PUBLICITE DES DEBATS de nos tribunaux judiciaires peut servir des objectifs tout a fait louables, dont la transparence du gouvernement et du systeme judiciaire et l'acces a la justice ne sont pas les moindres, meme si les analyses de la signification, de la portee et des objectifs sous-jacents du principe de la publicite des debats judiciaires n'ont cesse de croitre et d'evoluer au fil du temps. A l'heure actuelle, au Canada, l'adhesion a ce principe implique un acces presume a presque tous les elements des decisions judiciaires, notamment l'acces aux renseignements personnels des parties et des temoins, ce qui englobe non seulement les renseignements contenus dans les decisions judiciaires mais egalement l'information figurant dans les documents consignes dans les greffes des tribunaux. De tout temps, nonobstant cet acces presume, l'obscurite pratique a fait en sorte de proteger l'essentiel de cette information, dans la mesure ou la plupart des gens ne feront pas l'effort de se deplacer physiquement pour consulter dans les greffes les dossiers qui y sont entreposes. Bien que cette obscurite pratique decoulant de l'obligation de se deplacer pour acceder aux archives judiciaires ait pu, en quelque sorte, nuire a la comprehension qu'a le public de la loi et de l'issue des procedures judiciaires en imposant un certain obstacle a l'acces aux decisions judiciaires, elle a su du meme coup proteger la vie privee des gens en minimisant le possibilite d'une inspection publique generalisee des renseignements personnels relatifs aux temoins et aux parties en litige. Le transfert de ces dossiers judiciaires sur un support en ligne les rend desormais aisement accessibles, ce qui diminue d'autant l'obscurite pratique. Ce changement offre certes l'avantage d'ameliorer l'acces du public au droit et au raisonnement juridique, grace a l'acces en ligne, cependant, le fait de maintenir ce defaut en faveur d'un acces presume pourrait egalement entrainer des consequences negatives sur la vie privee. En effet, un acces en ligne inconditionnel et illimite supprime, ce faisant, les inconvenients et la responsabilite personnelle associes a la necessite de se deplacer physiquement pour acceder a des dossiers en version papier, non seulement en permettant l'acces aux decisions judiciaires mais en offrant qui plus est des renseignements personnels delicats au regard eventuellement voyeur du public. Nous sommes d'avis que, dans un tel contexte, l'acces presume a des renseignements personnels au sujet des parties et des temoins compromet le droit fondamental de tout un chacun a sa vie privee, sans pour autant contribuer de facon importante aux valeurs qui sous-tendent le principe de la publicite des debats judiciaires, soit la transparence et l'acces a la justice. En dernier ressort, nous recommandons l'adoption de mesures retablissant une forme de > dans le cadre du processus d'obtention d'un acces aux renseignements personnels et ce, afin de reequilibrer l'interet public a l'acces aux debats judiciaires avec l'interet public a la protection de la vie privee.

CONTENTS Revisiting the Open Court Principle in an Era of Online Publication: Questioning Presumptive Public Access to Parties' and Witnesses' Personal Information Jacquelyn Burkell & Jane Bailey Introduction 147 I. The Open Court Principle 150 A. Origins and Underlying Purposes 150 B. The Principle's Exceptions and Limitations 155 II. Default in Favour of Public Accessibility of Parties' and Witnesses' Personal Information 157 A. Underlying Purposes and Connections to the Open Court Principle 157 B. Exceptions to Public Accessibility of Names 163 1. Publication Bans Re: Sexual Assault Complainants in Criminal Proceedings 163 2. Publication Bans Re: Young Offenders 165 III. Online Publication and the Erosion of Practical Obscurity 167 A. Open Access in the Online Context 167 B. Information Access in the Online Context 169 C. Value and Use of Personal Information in Court Documents 171 Conclusion 179 INTRODUCTION

Although there is a long history of commitment to the open court principle throughout common and civil law systems, the principle has not been uniformly conceived of or applied over time. In this paper, we pay particular attention to one particular shift: although discussion of the open court principle initially focused on holding public officials involved in the legal process to public account, it has also been used to motivate presumptive openness with respect to personal information about parties and witnesses. As a result, unless restricted by explicit court order or in specific and identified types of proceedings (e.g. youth court), the public has access to any and all information revealed by or about parties and witnesses in court proceedings. This information can include, in addition to one's name, identifying and/or sensitive personal information such as addresses, names of children, financial information, social insurance number, and details about personal and professional life. Personal information can be found not only in court judgments, but also in numerous other kinds of documents filed with courts, including but not limited to: affidavits, attachments to affidavits (such as financial statements), and facta. The default of presumed accessibility continues even as documents forming part of court files move online, where the privacy of litigants and parties is no longer protected by the practical obscurity afforded by the requirement of physical access to paper documents. (1) Presumptive openness in an era of online publication could have devastating consequences for privacy, without substantially contributing to the fundamental underlying objective of the open court principle: that is, transparency and accountability of the justice system.

There can be no question about the sensitivity of the personal information revealed in court documents. Documentation in family law cases, for example, regularly includes names, addresses, telephone numbers, dates of birth of parties, details about children (e.g. names, ages, etc.), and financial account statements. (2) Personal injury cases also include significant information about the health and health care of litigants. In many cases, this information would be subject to protection if collected by other actors in other contexts. Banks, for example, are not at liberty to release sensitive financial information, and health care providers are required to protect personal health information. Furthermore, although the accountability requirements for public systems (including the Canadian health care and educational systems) clearly implicate information about members of the public who take part in those systems as patients or students, there is no default to openness with respect to personal information in these systems--individual health care and student educational records are not presumptively open to the public. Thus, in situations other than court proceedings where personal information is revealed, the default is to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.

This paper explores the justification for the default to openness (3) with respect to all aspects of court proceedings, including personal information regarding parties and witnesses. Our purpose is not to suggest specific solutions (which in the online context would necessarily involve collaboration with technology experts), but to highlight in detail the historical and contemporary parameters of the issue. We examine the impact of the turn towards online accessibility of court records (including judgments, documents filed...

To continue reading