Ontario will relax a rigid clamp of secrecy over cases ranging from sexual offences and extortion to criminal matters involving young offenders, Ontario Attorney-General Chris Bentley said yesterday.
Mr. Bentley said that allowing the media access to files in these cases will enhance public awareness of information that was routinely sealed in courthouses throughout the province.
"An essential part of strengthening the administration of justice is to make sure that it can be as open and transparent as possible," the Attorney-General said in an interview.
He said that in criminal cases involving young offenders, the media will be able to easily learn when and where specific cases are being heard - basic information that has stood as a major impediment to reporting the cases.
Mr. Bentley also said that he will look into relaxing a ministry policy that prevents prosecutors and ministry staff from responding to questions from the media.
While it is imperative that Crowns not be seen as partisan, Mr. Bentley said, loosening the absolute gag they are under could help public understanding of individual cases and the justice system as a whole.
"I would want to think about the implications of that, take some advice from the ministry and from Crowns who work on the front line every day," Mr. Bentley said.
"It's an interesting question. I think we can take a good look at what we're doing, why we are doing it, and whether we could assist members of the public of understanding some of what we do.
"Because, over time, it might have the effect of enhancing the confidence people have in our administration of justice."
Brian Rogers, a Toronto media lawyer, said that yesterday's changes are significant. "It affects a lot of cases in a lot of courtrooms," Mr. Rogers said in an interview. "These are policies that should never have been introduced, and which should have been changed long ago.
"Now, the public will get a more accurate picture of what goes on in the courts," he said.
"Without a justice system that has credibility - that doesn't seem like some hocus-pocus black box that nobody understands - you don't have real democracy."
Mr. Rogers said that, had the changes been in effect several months ago, they would have prevented a dispute that arose in a high-profile case in Hamilton involving a man who was charged with attempted murder after he had sex with several women, despite knowing that he was infected with HIV-AIDS.
Reporters covering the trial were unable even to get a copy of a court transcript in the case without a specific judicial order, Mr. Rogers said.
The changes reflect those made by similar levels of court across the country. A leader in the movement - the Ontario Court of Appeal - recently conducted a pilot project in which some hearings were televised. The Court also recently enhanced media access to court files.