An Alberta judge is expected to decide Tuesday if he’ll allow a camera in the courtroom as Travis Vader learns his fate, and experts say the ruling could have much broader implications for how Canadians witness their country’s court system.
Vader stands accused of murdering Lyle and Marie McCann, burning their motor home and then hiding their bodies. The case has drawn widespread public interest, leading a consortium of media outlets — including Global News — to request this week’s verdict be recorded and broadcast live for the public to see.
While Vader’s lawyer has not opposed the move, the Crown prosecutor argued that a summarized verdict with a camera in the courtroom could mislead the public.
TIMELINE: The key events in Travis Vader case
Whatever Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Denny Thomas decides, Toronto-based criminal defence lawyer Sean Robichaud said the case could become an important one as jurisdictions across Canada continue to grapple with the possibility of nation-wide ‘court TV.’
It would be “a very, very exceptional ruling that would marshal towards cameras being in court and the benefits that come from that,” said Robichaud, who is not involved in the Vader case.
Fred Kozak, the Edmonton lawyer representing the media consortium, agreed that allowing cameras in “could open the door to a more open justice system.”
Canada’s camera-free courts
At the moment, the general rule in Canada is that court proceedings are not televised, but there have been numerous exceptions over the years.
The Supreme Court of Canada has broadcast all of its hearings since the mid-1990s, and in Manitoba cameras are allowed in select courts.
The Federal Court of Appeal, the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal and the B.C. Supreme Court have all conducted pilot projects at varying times since the 1990s, and a good number of public inquiries and royal commissions have been televised or webcast over the same period.
WATCH: Travis Vader’s lawyers wrap up final arguments in murder trial
Still, these are appeals and inquiries, not trials. Broadcasts of criminal trials remain rare, although not unheard of.
In 2000, for instance, closing arguments in the B.C. trial of nine Korean sailors accused of human smuggling were televised after a judge granted permission.
There have also been attempts at televising criminal proceedings that have faltered. Following Vancouver’s Stanley Cup riots in 2011, for example, B.C. Premier Christy Clark famously promised that hockey hooligans who broke the law that night would see their trials plastered all over the airwaves.
But after a judge denied the application to have cameras present for a rioter’s sentencing hearing the following winter, the province gave up on the idea.
Arguments for and against
The debate over broadcasting from the courtroom has been raging for decades in Canada, with both sides now firmly entrenched in their arguments.
Opponents have said widespread televised proceedings rob families and victims of their privacy and their choice to refuse to speak to the media during a criminal trial.
There are also those who believe it will change the behaviour of witnesses, jury members, judges and lawyers.
Robichaud, a longtime advocate for cameras, says he doesn’t buy it.
“I’m not aware of any studies that have shown that lawyers or witnesses would react in a negative fashion,” he said.
“The counter-argument could be made just as cogently, in that lawyers (would) behave themselves more, as would witnesses, as would judges.”
Kozak said the verdict in the Vader case in particular should be broadcast as there have been allegations of police misconduct, a stay of proceedings and “huge” public interest in the six-year legal saga. The McCann family has also given its consent.
“They, perhaps more than anyone, feel that the public has a right to attend, to see not only the verdict but the reasons for the verdict,” Kozak noted.
“Obviously not everyone who’s interested will be able to get into the courtroom.”