Manitoba at forefront of cameras in courtrooms, but a long way to go, says media lawyer

The Manitoba Law Courts. John Woods / The Canadian Press / File

Manitoba has come a long way to allowing cameras in the courtrooms, but it’s still going to be a fight to see them in court full time.

Winnipeg media lawyer Bob Sokalski has been at the forefront of the battle for cameras in the courtroom, including an attempt in 2012 during the high-profile Graham James trial.

READ MORE: Ex-hockey coach and convicted sex offender Graham James granted full parole

Bringing cameras into the sentencing for James, a disgraced former hockey coach convicted of sexual assault, was ultimately denied by the courts, but Sokalski said Manitoba is still leading the charge in allowing media access to the courtroom.

After the James case, he said, the three levels of court created media guidelines that are more permissive here in Manitoba than in some other provinces.

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“This goes back to the middle ages when there was an evolution from something called the star chamber, where all courts were held in camera, in private, where no one had access to see what was happening,” Sokalski told 680 CJOB Wednesday.

Lawyer Bob Sokalski.
Lawyer Bob Sokalski.

“There was no scrutiny from the public, there was no information for the public.

“Every courtroom in Canada at every level – going right to the Supreme Court – has a gallery to accommodate those members of the public who have the luxury of time to be able to go down and watch what’s happening … but the critical aspect is that the vast majority of Canadians don’t have that luxury of time to go and witness gavel-to-gavel what’s happening in the courtroom.”

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Cameras will be in the courtroom for the sentencing hearing for Guido Amsel, who was convicted of sending a letterbomb to a local law office earlier this year. The proceedings will be livestreamed online.

Sokalski said the reason many trial decisions can be viewed by the public by a camera strictly focused on the judge is so important decisions can be understood by viewers in full, and not reduced to out-of-context soundbites or clips.

Privacy and safety concerns, he said, are the main reasons Canadian courts have been reluctant to allow full camera coverage over a whole proceeding.

READ MORE: Convicted Winnipeg letter-bomber to be sentenced in November

“That would require a special application to the court, and thus far in Manitoba, such an application has not been heard,” he said.

“In other provinces, they have tried and failed on such applications where the concerns have come up in relation to witnesses who might be reluctant to testify if they’re subject to being on television.

“In some cases the lawyer participants have been concerned about their safety, whether they are prosecuting or defending and they’re on camera.”

For the first fully-televised trial to work in Canada, Sokalski said the media needs to find the right fit.

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“The media have to find the right case where the expectation is that the victims will be onside and where there’s a sufficient public interest,” he said.

“The courts have to be persuaded that the broadcast outweighs any concerns and that it’s a matter of sufficient public interest that the public needs to know what’s happening.”

WATCH: Guido Amsel found guilty on multiple counts of attempted murder

Click to play video: 'Guido Amsel found guilty on multiple counts of attempted murder' Guido Amsel found guilty on multiple counts of attempted murder
Guido Amsel found guilty on multiple counts of attempted murder – May 17, 2018

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