Ottawa Citizen
Friday, October 05, 2001

Complacent justice system hinders the public's right to know

Dave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen

Driving to the office after being kicked out of a courtroom Wednesday, I felt fear for my country: that it has learned nothing from the collapse of the Soviet system and is falling into the same trap.

Being turned away at courtroom doors is not a new experience. Over the years the Citizen has spent much money on lawyers as I challenged the concept that allows courts to operate in secret in a free society. With a lawyer running interference, I have never failed to gain entry after being ordered out. Judges simply need a reminder that a free press in a free society represents the public's right to know.

The difference this time was that I was unable to make quick contact with the newspaper's lawyers. I was getting voice-mail. I face a daily deadline and had to reorganize my day, so headed back to the office wondering how it came about that we are losing such basic freedoms as the right to know.

One major reason the Soviet system failed was that it became a victim of its own addiction to secrecy. Eventually nobody knew what was going on, and nobody was accountable.

In the four decades I've worked as a reporter I've watched the country I love become a dangerously secret society. We have become addicted to the Privacy Act. We have allowed confidentiality to run amok. The result is that I'm finding it near-impossible to fulfill my assigned task -- to keep the public informed in my areas of interest.

This week's courtroom door was shut by Justice Paul Cosgrove. He was hearing a child-protection case. I don't know if it's a case worth reporting. I was there to find out. The mother in the case begged for public overview and asked me to cover it. That is her right.

Family court cases are tricky. Confidentiality issues make writing about them difficult. Reporters seldom venture in. Children can be taken from parents with no proof of anything. Decisions are based on opinions, not hard facts. Over the decades, I've written about dozens of cases and have never faced an angry judge. I know the rules and I'm careful.

Had I been allowed into Courtroom 23 this week, chances are high I would have found flaws in what the mother told me, and left. No story. But when I checked with her later to ask what had happened, she said she had been told by the judge that she couldn't talk to journalists.

True? I don't know. I wasn't there. Judges don't take media calls, but I left questions in voice mail at Judge Cosgrove's office in Brockville. When I told the mother about basic freedoms and offered to challenge the judge's alleged order, she cried, became unintelligible, and hung up.

Another issue here is that the woman instructed her lawyer to co-operate with me. Lawyers are supposed to take instructions from clients, but treat it as an option. He should have informed the court his client wanted public observation.

People who are paying a lawyer and give such instructions should fire him or her if they aren't followed. In legal-aid cases, such as this one, the lawyer is difficult to fire.

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Add the court problem to another secrecy case bothering me. Tuesday night I drove about 40 minutes to an Ottawa Valley town to talk to a former immigration clerk who claims she issued a false landing document after receiving a phoned threat at work. She is now out of a job.

She says the threat involved her child and the caller knew where the school bus stop was. The alleged document was issued in the name of a Syrian man. That was in January. In May she was a nervous wreck and reported the incident to Ottawa police.

The report was taken by phone and when she called me three weeks ago, nobody had yet called her back.

Police confirmed they had a report but said confidentiality rules prevented discussion. So I did what police didn't. I drove to her home to try to make a judgment call. I believe I met a woman officials should talk to.

Dave Brown is the Citizen's senior editor. Send e-mail to dbrown@thecitizen.southam.ca Read previous columns by Dave Brown at www.ottawacitizen.com .

© Copyright 2001 The Ottawa Citizen

© Copyright 2001 The Ottawa Citizen