By Shirley Bond, Guest Comment
Recently, the dedicated team of Crown counsel assigned to the Stanley Cup riot prosecutions advised the court of their intention to apply to have these proceedings publicly broadcasted. This is in keeping with a commitment set out in the government’s throne speech, and I want to explain why I have directed these applications to be made.
This government believes that the courts need to be open institutions for the public, and when we have opportunities to enhance the transparency of our justice system, we need to pursue those.
This spring, we saw the successful live broadcast, by CBC online, of the polygamy reference case before B.C. Supreme Court in a case involving the government’s constitutional lawyers.
The broadcasting of the polygamy reference addressed the sensitive issue of witness participation in a manner satisfactory to all parties.
The decision about whether to allow such an application requires the balancing of a number of factors, including whether the broadcast is in the public interest.
There will always be discussion among those in the justice system about the virtues of any innovation that moves us beyond the current way of doing business. I often hear of people who have lost confidence in our justice system. I can think of no better way and in no better circumstance than with the Vancouver riots for the public to see justice in action.
This initiative brings us a step closer to making our province’s courts more open and accountable to British Columbians, and we welcome the debate it has generated.
Immediately following the June 15 riot, government established a dedicated riot prosecution team of skilled and experienced Crown counsel who review police reports as soon as they are received. To date, the Integrated Riot Investigation Team has recommended charges against 80 individuals and recently we saw the start of the trial process for the first eight of those accused.
Crown and defence lawyers very often make a number of different applications on a variety of issues during a typical court case. In fact, the media bring applications to broadcast certain court proceedings themselves.
While these applications may take some time to be heard, it is important to note that, despite the number of individuals charged, these new riot cases represent less than 0.1 per cent of the criminal justice branch’s caseload in a year.
In fact, last year, the branch concluded prosecutions involving 68,000 accused. Clearly, other cases will continue to move through the court system while these prosecutions are underway.
Some have argued broadcasting the trials amounts to public shaming. Let me just say this: we believe broadcasting the trials of accused rioters is in the public interest and will help to maintain confidence in our justice system.
It is always important to remember that every individual who is charged with a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty. At the same time, the residents of our province, and especially those who live and work in Vancouver, expect some form of accountability for those who senselessly destroyed property and, in some cases, assaulted their fellow citizens.
While using broadcasting devices in the courts brings with it certain responsibilities, including protecting the safety of witnesses, in this age of technology, we think this will open up the courts to make it easier for the public to truly understand what is going on in our province’s courtrooms. Opening up our courtrooms is just one of the many ways we are working to maintain confidence in our province’s justice system.
The decision to direct Crown counsel to apply to broadcast the riot prosecutions is just one part of the government’s pledge to support open and accountable government and public engagement.
We believe that the public wants transparency when dealing with those charged in the matters surrounding the Vancouver riot.
Ultimately, the judiciary will make the decision about whether to broadcast the proceedings.
Shirley Bond is B.C. ‘s attorney general.