Emily Jaycox editorial

The dos and don’ts of court reporting

I’ve had the opportunity in the last few months to learn more about court proceedings and the laws governing how they are reported on as I’ve gathered information for articles and attempted to answer questions regarding how our justice system operates.

A big question being asked in central Alberta lately, is how and why repeat offenders are released on bail, even after they have already been charged with serious or violent crimes.

In Canada, anyone charged with a crime can apply for bail, and if they meet the criteria for bail set out in the Criminal Code, the judge is obligated to grant it under the law, regardless of any personal feelings or opinions they may have.

And it has become more difficult to get suspects remanded into custody, thanks to federal legislative changes through Bill C-75, that came into force in December, 2019. The bill clarifies bail provisions, and the amendments to the act legislate that “release at the earliest opportunity is favoured over detention” (justice.gc.ca).

If for some reason a judge does not grant bail when an applicant is eligible for it, the person could then just appeal to a higher court for bail.

With the exception of sexual assault cases or other incidents when statements may be given privately before a judge, courts are open to the public, with the current exception of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although anyone can attend an open session of court, certain things may come under a publication ban. Bail hearings are under an automatic publication ban, unless otherwise stated by the judge.

Although the name of the judge, Crown prosecutor and the defence may be reported, any arguments put forth by the prosecution of the defence, or reasons given by the judge for a ruling on bail, cannot be published, as they may include evidence which could be used further on in a trial.

It is permissible to report on bail conditions.

For true justice to occur, there must be a balance between the rights of the offender and the rights of the victim. Perhaps in our current system, though, the bar is set too low for the criteria the accused has to meet in order to qualify for bail.

Those who follow court stories may notice the reporters use very official, sometimes circumspect language to describe court proceedings.

Although this may give the perception of the media only trying to cover their own liability, which certainly is true in part, it is also to protect the justice process so any potential future trials are not jeopardized.

While court reporting is covered in journalism programs, it is a specialized area of reporting that takes years of experience to fully learn. Media outlets have their own lawyers they frequently consult when it comes to court and crime coverage, to ensure stories are fair and legally sound.

Believe it or not, the media can be held accountable by laws such as defamation and contempt of court.

Media can be charged with contempt of court for anything that violates a publication ban or otherwise could potentially bias a jury and jeopardize a trial.

Such things that can constitute ‘contempt of court’ include an article that uses language that presumes or implies the accused is guilty.

If the defence can give reasonable evidence that previous media reports biased a jury, it can cause a mistrial.

Beyond the laws that govern how crime is reported to protect the rights of victims and the accused, there is also journalistic standards of accurate and unbiased reporting and a code of ethics; true journalists are guided by their conscience when a tough call falls into a grey area.

Those who work in journalism who take it not just as a profession, but a calling, believe in providing accurate information to the public for the public good.

There are times that journalists are limited in what information they are able to publish, for a cause higher even than freedom of public information, and one of those examples is when justice is involved.

What is justice and where does the desire for justice come from?

One of the best aspects of humanity is the capacity to feel empathy for the pain and suffering of others.

When the rule of law is violated and causes suffering to a victim and their family, it is that ability to feel empathy that drives society to call for action, that motivates the masses to call for justice for the victims.

No journalist worth their salt wants to see a victim not receive justice because they reported information prematurely.