Calgary Herald

Friday, December 20, 2002

Lawyers warned to button their lips in court

Mario Toneguzzi
Calgary Herald

There's an old adage that loose lips sink ships. Well, in Calgary courtrooms, lawyers and Crown prosecutors are being warned that their loose lips could sink their court cases.

Assistant Chief Judge Brian Stevenson has posted cautionary notices in Calgary's provincial court noting that digital recording devices are so sensitive they can pick up even a whisper in the courtroom. He cautions lawyers and prosecutors to be careful what they say because it could be recorded in court transcripts and form part of the evidence.

"This system is extremely sensitive," said Stevenson on Thursday. "It picks up everything. Even a cough in the back row can be heard."

Are lawyers liable to make comments they shouldn't in a courtroom?

Stevenson chuckles and recalls an incident a few years ago when Calgary courtrooms had a central recording area.

Stevenson had a disagreement with one lawyer in morning court. Apparently the recording system continued to run despite an adjournment of the proceedings -- running for about another 30 seconds or so until it was shut off.

Stevenson remembers listening to the tape.

"You could hear me leaving. You could hear the door closing," explained Stevenson.

He also unexpectedly heard the distinctive voice of the lawyer he battled with only moments before: "I wonder who (defecated) in his lunch bucket."

When Stevenson saw the lawyer again, he mischievously informed him he had heard his supposedly secret comments in the courtroom.

To prevent any repeat embarrassing moments or verbal slips in the courtroom, Stevenson has advised legal beagles to be aware of the courtroom's highly effective digital recording system, which has been in place for the past two years.

The notice is addressed to all Crown and defence counsel. "Caution" is capitalized and in bold letters as a heading.

"As a result of the introduction of digital recording in our courts, the recording microphones' sensitivity has been substantially enhanced.

"Counsel are cautioned that it is likely that any discussions/conversations/comments (even if whispered) between counsel or between counsel and witnesses (including the accused) will be recorded and will become part of the court record.

"I suggest that any discussions/conversations/comments that you do not wish to be recorded take place outside the courtroom."

Bart Johnson, spokesman for Alberta Justice, said Stevenson's cautionary note "sounds like sound advice."

"It's a simple reminder to counsel and the court to be discreet," added Johnson.

He said the digital recording system is in place in all Alberta courtrooms to ensure the accuracy and integrity of the court record.

"The equipment is sensitive and it's sensitive for a good reason," said Johnson.

Steven Jenuth, president of the Alberta Civil Liberties Association, said it's important lawyers be reminded to think very carefully about what they say in a courtroom because the microphone picks up everything.

And Jenuth's advice for lawyers, who make a living talking in court?

"People really shouldn't be talking in court (if they don't want to be heard)," he said.

© Copyright 2002 Calgary Herald