VANCOUVER — British Columbia’s attorney general has formally directed Crown lawyers to ask judges to allow cameras in their courtrooms when people accused of joining the explosive fray of the Stanley Cup riots go on trial.
Shirley Bond moved Tuesday to exercise her power to impact B.C. Supreme Court proceedings, despite earlier comments from the Criminal Justice Branch that it opposed putting the hearings on TV.
On the rare previous occasions when cameras have been allowed to broadcast from a B.C. courtroom, it’s been after a media outlet has made the request.
On Monday, the government pledged in its throne speech to pry open the trials of people who will be charged in relation to the June 15 melee where cars were set ablaze and dozens of stores looted.
Critics immediately suggested inviting audiences to tune in for the legal drama in prime time was a stunt to grab eyeballs, the political equivalent of boosting ratings.
“I don’t think it’s about public shaming at all,” Bond told reporters on Tuesday.
“I think it’s about an event that impacted all of British Columbia and beyond, and I think that there is a public interest in ensuring this is a transparent, open process.”
Bond acknowledged the public position of the branch but said she had the authority to direct the lawyers to heed the government’s wishes.
“We’re not suggesting we want to put any prosecution at risk,” she said.
“And remember that the ultimate decision will be made by the judge that presides over that trial.”
Formal guidelines were created in B.C. in 2001 outlining when television cameras should be allowed into the courtrooms and what restrictions should be placed upon them.
Criminal Justice Branch spokesman Neil McKenzie did not immediately return calls for comment.
Vancouver police have said they expect to eventually charge hundreds of people in relation to the roiling melee.
although investigators are still building each case. Forty people are initially expected to be charged later this month, the force has said.
The Supreme Court of Canada is the only court in the country that regularly broadcasts proceedings. Several other courts have allowed cameras on rare occasions following an application to the judge.
The common arguments against setting up cameras take aim at whether the presence of the electronic lens will dissuade witness participation, violate privacy or threaten the accused’s safety.
The reverse line of thinking is that these trials are of great significance and interest to people, many of whom might not have easy access to the otherwise public court proceedings. Televising them promotes open courts.
“But that doesn’t seem to be the rationale that’s being put forward for this request from the premier,” Vancouver-based criminal lawyer Eric Gottardi said Monday, reacting to the throne speech.
It just looks like Clark is trying to influence the courts over low-level offences that happen to ring bells with average, upset citizens, he said.
But lawyer Dan Burnett, who represents several media outlets, said he’s pleased with the decision and hopes the trials do go to air so they can serve as an example of the benefits of broadcasting the courts.
“Every time this comes up there’s always the standard, ’Oh, lawyers will grandstand, oh, witnesses will be intimidated,”’ he said.
“And those are arguments you need to deal with as to whether they actually materialize. And they tend not to. I think people need to see that.”