RiotTV: a political stunt

This week, British Columbia’s Attorney General, Shirley Bond, announced that the government would abandon the direction it gave to Crown prosecutors to make Applications to televise the legal proceedings of those accused of crimes relating to Vancouver’s Stanley Cup riot. The government appears to have had this change of heart after it’s first Application was dismissed against Mr. Ryan Dickenson – who is the first person being sentenced in in relation to the riot. The judge felt that the Crown did not provide enough information to support the Application – namely the cost associated with televising these legal proceedings.

I really could go on & on about how inappropriate I felt these “RiotTV” applications were in the first place. I am a firm believer that cameras have no purpose in our courtrooms. Of course, there is the reasonable argument of transparency and that having cameras would better educate people on how the justice system functions. But to those people I say walk down to your local courthouse, read case law, order transcripts of court proceedings, if you’re so inclined. The risks of having cameras in courtrooms, in my opinion, far outweigh the benefits. A criminal trial is a ‘truth-seeking’ exercise. Witnesses may be hesitant to give full accounts of their evidence if they know the world is watching them. Lawyers may tailor their questioning of witnesses for the same reasons. Judges may be reluctant to decide a case in a certain way if it is deemed to be unpopular with the public. Prosecutors worry about their personal safety. In fact, all participants in a criminal trial worry about their personal safety. No one wants their face frozen in time on YouTube – and in this day and age, that is what happens. I see what happens on TV in American courtrooms and I do not want Canada’s justice system to go there.

But why did Premier Christy Clark demand that these particular offenders be put on TV? She said something along the lines of “well they committed their crimes on camera, therefore they should have no problem being dealt with by the courts while on camera”.

The logic in that is ridiculous. I have had dozens of clients who’s criminal acts have been captured on CCTV cameras – for murder, break & enter, sexual assault, DUI’s and drug offences. Crimes, which I argue, are far worse than some of my clients who stand charged in relation to Vancouver’s riot.

So why didn’t the government seek to televise these other crimes caught on camera? Because there was nothing to be gained politically from doing so.

The fact of the matter is this: June 15, 2011 was an awful day in Vancouver’s history and the government tried to gain politically from what happened that day. In doing so, they tried to interfere with the justice system’s independence. This ultimately blew up in their face. The BC Liberals are quite out of touch with the ailing state of our justice system – and it is largely due to the financial cutbacks they imposed over the last decade. Legal Aid is seriously reduced for those who need legal representation. We need more judges. We need more sheriffs. The system is in crisis.

RiotTV was nothing more than a political stunt. I accept that being “tough on crime” is attractive to voters – but the manner in which the government tried to appear tough on crime was only intended as a diversion from the real problems our justice system is facing. I think the public saw through the political stunt from the beginning – and the public will remember this when the next provincial election is called.

Social Media and our Justice System

I’m learning how to blog. Facebook I use mainly for social purposes. My Twitter account focuses on issues relating to my law practice. Nevertheless, social media is ever-expanding and it’s hard to find a person today who isn’t engaged in using social media in one way, or another.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that yesterday I had a brief, heated dialogue with a media outlet that tweeted something quite untrue relating to the court case of a client of mine. For the record, the reporter who made the honest mistake (and I dobelieve it was an honest mistake) has since retracted the tweet and I’m sure the mistake will not be repeated. But I’m assuming the erroneous tweet was made in a rush to deliver some ‘breaking news’, but the facts were wrong before it was sent out. This is one of the risks associated with Twitter.

I can sympathize with what happened yesterday because I’ve been in that situation myself – I sent out tweets that later regret and wish I could take back (I deleted them asap, but I know many people have likely already seen the tweet). For myself, there was a steep learning curve when I started using Twitter and I learned a couple Golden Rules when using Twitter:

1) Make sure you are certain that what you are saying is true and factually correct, and

2) Don’t tweet when you are overly emotional (ie: pissed off, upset etc.).

Coincidentally, yesterday Chief Justice Beverly McLaughlin of the Supreme Court of Canada gave a speech to some university students about how Canada’s justice system needs to embrace and better understand the reach of social media. Today, reporters want to tweet information from inside courtrooms, jury trials have been jeopardized because jurors have been caught tweeting/googling cases they’re sitting on, and Facebook profiles have been places where evidence for criminal and civil trials have been gathered. These are some of the many issues that Madam Justice McLaughlin likely anticipates that the justice system will have to come to grips with as social media’s relevance expands in our society. I thought it was great that our country’s top judge has taken such a progressive approach to better understanding social media’s impact on our justice system – and I know it will have a trickle-down effect to courtrooms across Canada.

What are your thoughts on social media’s role in our justice system? Should judges tweet about cases they are deciding? What about Crown prosecutors? Would the public gain a better understanding about a particular case if these players were permitted to do so?

I do not know the answers to those questions… but if they do tweet, they should follow my two Golden Rules above.