STANDING COMMITTEE ON
Wednesday 13 September 2006 Mercredi 13 septembre 2006
The committee met at 0907 in room 151.
ACCESS TO JUSTICE ACT, 2006
CANADA COURT WATCH
The Vice-Chair: At this time I want to call forward Canada Court Watch, Vernon Beck, please. Welcome, Mr. Beck. You have 30 minutes for your presentation. If you don't use up the entire 30 minutes, the remaining time will be an opportunity for committee members to ask questions or make comments. Would you identify yourself for Hansard and then just proceed with your presentation.
Mr. Vernon Beck: On behalf of Canada Court Watch, I would like to thank the committee for the opportunity to make a short presentation here today. My name is Vernon Beck. I'm a justice advocate, an investigative reporter with the National Association for Public and Private Accountability and the Canada Court Watch program. We are a Canadian-based citizens' organization which was founded by Archbishop Dorian A. Baxter.
For those who don't know our founder, he was the first Canadian who successfully sued a children's aid agency and won. His case made newspapers worldwide because the Durham Children's Aid Society in that case was found guilty of the grossest negligence, incompetence, perjury and blackmail. Unfortunately, there was a recent CBC investigative report on TV in which the same Durham Children's Aid Society was reported on for a young boy who was being sexually abused and drugged while under the care of the Durham Children's Aid Society. Sadly, it seems that history repeats itself when it comes to children being abused by some of these CAS agencies in Ontario.
One of our organization's major initiatives is the Canada Court Watch program. We are the only citizen-based program that is devoted exclusively to monitoring the courts and reporting on issues relevant to the courts and the justice system. We are the only media organization that collects videotaped interviews of children and adults who have been in the court system for the purposes of research. We strive to make the justice system better by exposing the violations of the rights and freedoms of Canadians in the court system. We strive to make judges and those associated with the court system accountable. More information about our organization can be found on our organization's website at www.canadacourtwatch.com.
Based on our organization's experience over the last 10 years, the justice system as it currently stands here in Ontario has lost the respect of a great many Canadians, especially in our family and child protection courts. Every day our organization receives calls from children and parents in distress with the justice system in the Ontario courts. Many children call us. Many of them complain about Ontario's Office of the Children's Lawyer and how nobody is listening to their wishes and preferences. We have videotaped interviews from some children who are telling us that they are being coerced and coached by lawyers from Ontario's Office of the Children's Lawyer. We have this on videotape. We even get calls from lawyers --
The Vice-Chair: Excuse me, sir. I think at this point I should caution you. While members enjoy parliamentary privileges and a certain protection pursuant to the Legislative Assembly Act, it is unclear whether or not these privileges and protections extend to witnesses who appear before committees. For example, it may very well be that the testimony you have given or are about to give could be used against you in a legal proceeding. So I want to caution you to take this into consideration as you make your comments.
Mr. Beck: I understand, and I will only state that --
Mr. Kormos: On a point of order, Madam Chair: Talk about giving legal advice. Look, he's here, has lawful standing in front of the committee, and quite frankly that sort of admonition -- I mean, he comes here at his own risk, but that type of admonition is, in my view, entirely inappropriate for the Chair to give unilaterally. I'm sorry; I find that very bizarre.
The Vice-Chair: I simply want to caution the witness for his own protection.
Mr. Beck: Thank you, Chair. I understand. Let me only state that as far as any statements I make here, we generally do have the videotaped or audio-taped evidence to back up what I probably will say today.
The Vice-Chair: Thank you for that.
Mr. Beck: To continue on, we get calls from lawyers as well with valid complaints about the administration of our courts and about the judges themselves. Many lawyers are telling us that the system is horribly broken. Our own investigations confirm this. As a volunteer organization, we cannot handle the dozens of calls that come into our organization each week. We are planning to submit a more comprehensive report to the government at some point in the future after a number of our ongoing investigations are complete.
Although the problems with the justice system are just too numerous to deal with today, there are two or three issues that I would like to bring to the attention of this committee because we believe that they can be addressed immediately and they are of utmost urgency.
The first issue I'm going to talk about today is what we feel is the obstruction of justice by judges and court officials regarding the use of recording equipment under section 136 of the Courts of Justice Act. The second issue is the access of the media to the courts.
Court Watch is gravely concerned about what a growing number of citizens see as a blatant obstruction of justice by some judges and court security staff under section 136 of the Courts of Justice Act. Section 136 of the act -- and I think there's been some testimony previously -- clearly gives citizens, lawyers and parties acting in person the right to take a recording device into the court for the purpose of supplementing their notes in their own court hearing. It's quite clear. The current law makes sense. It's reasonable, it's fair and it complies with the principles of fundamental justice. Yet this simple section of the Courts of Justice Act is being routinely violated by judges and court staff, who have been entrusted to uphold the law and to protect the rights of the citizens of Ontario.
To give you some examples of what I'm describing here right now, last summer at the Collingwood court, Madam Justice Lydia Olah ordered police to padlock the courtroom doors. A lock and key were used to padlock the people inside, and members of the media were told that they had to stay out by the police officers. There was no court order for that decision. Two armed OPP officers stood outside the court doors and said that if any members of the media approached the courtroom door, they would be arrested and taken away.
In that case there, Madam Justice Olah abused her power as a judge because she directly instructed the police to interfere with the law. Police are supposed to be acting on the Criminal Code or under the specific instructions of a court order, not taking instructions from a judge in the backroom of the court. Officers are supposed to get their instructions from the chief of police, not from a judge.
Prior to that incident, Justice Olah did the same thing again at the Newmarket court. She ordered the media out of the court and threatened them with arrest without giving the media even the opportunity to argue their position in the court. They were threatened with arrest if they didn't get out. This abuse of power is clearly the actions of a tyrant.
Just recently, Justice Waldman, at the court at 47 Sheppard Avenue East, after taking two months to render a decision on the matter of allowing a person to record their own court hearing under section 136 of the Courts of Justice Act, refused it. In her endorsement she said that the practice directive of former Chief Justice Howland, which clearly granted citizens the right to record their hearings, was not applicable in her court and neither was the Courts of Justice Act. Justice Waldman came up with her own decisions as to why court recordings should not be allowed, one of them being that if there were even allegations of violence against the parties, this should have a bearing on the decision to allow recordings in the court. There is no basis in law for her findings. They are clearly flawed. They're frivolous. They're an embarrassment to the administration of justice and a blatant waste of our tax dollars.
Another judge in Hamilton, after a lengthy recess to ponder the issue of allowing someone to tape-record their hearing, came back into the court and said that it would be okay for that person to tape-record their hearing, but the judge said they would have to remove the tape from their recording device and place it into the court file. Of course, they can't hear it. It would remain there at the court. It's absolutely silly. It just defeats the whole process of allowing someone to review their notes for the day. Arguing that took about three hours of court time. The next time that party came back to court, the judge changed his mind and said, "Okay, we're going to allow it this time." But the hours that were spent arguing that in court were almost a joke to members of the public who where sitting in the court that day. It was almost a comedy.
Just a few months ago -- and I think it was maybe in March or April of this year -- a high school teacher went to the court in Brampton intending to supplement his notes with a tape recording. He was stopped at the entrance to the court and was threatened with arrest if he attempted to bring the tape recorder into the court. He had a copy of the Courts of Justice Act with him. He showed it to the officers there. He said, "This is the law. You people are supposed to be enforcing the law." The officers' response to this teacher was, "That doesn't apply to us, and if you try to bring it in, we're going to arrest you." Needless to say, he had to walk out to his car and leave his tape recorder there. He went into the court and the judge again refused it, with no explanation.
One mother in Kingston reported that when she took her tape recorder into the court, again, to simply record her court hearing, court staff immediately ran into the back to advise the judge that there was a tape recorder in the room. The judge refused to come into the courtroom as long as the recording device was there. Court staff then seized her personal property from her and took it outside the courtroom. She has reported that ever since that time, whenever she goes to the court, she is now being taken to a special room and she is body-searched. She said that hands go down inside her bra to see if she might be carrying a recording device.
Another strange thing is happening in the courts. Misleading signs are being posted -- many of these are on paper; they're laminated -- telling the citizens of Ontario that it is illegal to bring tape recorders and to tape-record in the court. They're clearly misleading. They give no consideration to the Courts of Justice Act. They are clearly intended to mislead citizens of Ontario into believing they have no rights under the Courts of Justice Act. Who is putting up these signs? Who has provided the instructions to have these court signs go around in various courts? They seem to have the same wording, so someone is putting them out.
This ongoing comedy in our courts is costing the taxpayers hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars per year and is tying up significant court time. We have high-paid judges who in most cases are earning over a quarter of a million dollars per year. They should be making real decisions, not getting into frivolous arguments over the Courts of Justice Act and whether people can supplement their notes with a tape recorder. What is causing the judges and all those who work in the courts to be so defensive about people simply supplementing their notes with a recording device? What are they afraid of? Something smells, and that's what the average person on the street is saying, too.
Moving on to another issue, the tampering with official court transcripts: We've received disturbing information from citizens which would reasonably suggest that official court transcripts are being unlawfully tampered with in some cases. We have people calling us and saying they have obtained transcripts and that some of the words on the transcripts are missing. In the last year, we had at least three lawyers, members of the bar, who called us and indicated the same thing. They believe that transcripts were being altered at the court. In fact, one of the lawyers, a female lawyer, indicated to us that she felt somewhat afraid if she was to question this. She felt afraid for her safety if she was to question this.
Another citizen reported that when he disputed the transcripts and asked to listen to the court reporter's tape -- he was given that opportunity; he was taken to a private room to listen to it -- suddenly he uncovered where the tape had been dubbed. What happened is that there was suddenly a blank in the tape. He reported that there was a blank and suddenly a previously-recorded section of the tape was at the end. There was about a 20-second gap. This only comes about when someone has reduced the length of the tape and they forgot to erase the end. As soon as that became evident, he stood up and said, "What is this?" He was immediately ordered out of the room. The tape machine was turned off. He was kicked out of the room.
We have official letters from court staff admitting that they have lost transcripts; not only the transcripts, but they have lost the audio recordings that go with those transcripts. Some of these citizens have reported that these were critical court records needed for their cases.
Many citizens report that transcripts are being reviewed and approved by judges before they're allowed to get them, and that judges are taking months to get around to reviewing these things. We have cases here where people are taking nine months to get their transcripts. They're getting them, and the people are saying there are things missing out of them, that they're not accurate. The public can see there's something wrong with this area of accountability and transparency.
The next issue I'd like to raise, and it will be the final one I raise here, is interference in peaceful protests by police and court officials with the public at the courts.
On August 25, 2006, Court Watch sponsored an event in Barrie. We called it a public awareness event in which citizens, both young and old, men and women, handed out flyers in the community of Barrie, including the geographical area around the court. We had supporters who stood in front of entrances to the court, over to the side, and simply handed out pieces of paper, 8½ by 11, to inform them of problems with the court. In fact, it was Justice OIah who was the topic of the flyers on that particular day. The judge was targeted because one of the ways we use to bring accountability is to embarrass and to bring forth where there have been injustices.
During this peaceful event, the citizens were harassed by police and court security. The people at the doors were clearly standing over to the side, outside the court, between the parking lot and the entrance to the doors, and approaching strictly members of the public, asking them to take a piece of paper and thanking them. Officers came out. They were saying, "You might be violating bylaws here. You might be facing litter charges." There were always officers coming out, standing and towering over these people as if, "You people are bad people." One lady, who happened to be 70 years of age, who was one of the two or three people who were at the park, had to go to the washroom. She's 70 years old; she simply wanted to go to the washroom. She went to the courtroom doors, and what she was wearing -- supporters of our organization were wearing these T-shirts, which say "Canada Court Watch," and they give our website. A 70-year-old woman was wearing that T-shirt. She was refused entrance into the court to use the public washroom. The officer told her that the people inside the court had determined that she was a member of a gang because more than three people were wearing these T-shirts, and that under the court security act or something like that they were going to be enforcing that and she would not be allowed in, and if she tried to go in again she would be arrested under "gang." So we have a 70-year-old woman being labelled as a gang -- no tattoos, and she's quite a respectable lady.
One family reported that they were sitting in their car after the event -- the event only lasted about three hours -- with their kids. Police officers came up and asked them to identify themselves. They had children in the car and they were being asked to identify themselves. They just gave their first names, and they were heading on to a barbecue down at the beach, so they just kept going. They weren't near the court; they were in their car. Needless to say, about a week ago this couple got a call from the OPP at their home. The only thing they could think of was that the police must have done a licence plate search on their car, found out where they lived, gotten their phone number and contacted them. This is nothing less than harassment, intimidation of citizens of this province who are doing nothing except to exercise their democratic rights to a peaceful protest and try to make the justice system better.
We've got dozens of similar incidents over the years at many courthouses where people were being threatened, intimidated. Another quick example I could give you is that a family may go to Family Court. It's funny: You'll see these court people come out and right away they select who gets to go in the court. We're supposed to have public courtrooms, but you'll see these staffers come out and they'll say, "Is your name on the court documents? If it's not, you can't come in." It could be a mother, a grandmother, uncles, aunts, but they're told they can't come in, only the people in the court, even though it's just a regular Family Court, open to the public. So there are court staff out there knowingly keeping people out.
Again we have to ask, why are judges and court officials creating such resistance to people coming in to see what's going on, to find out, to see what's happening to their friends, their relatives, their children, their mothers, their fathers and their brothers? The answer is very simple: Some of the judges and those in the courts are trying to hide what is going on and what is being said in the courts. They are trying to hide the truth. Members of the public believe that some judges and court officials are knowingly and maliciously obstructing justice. In our opinion and the opinion of many people in Ontario, judges and court officials are breaking the law and getting away with it because nobody has been challenging them up to now. We may be one of the first organizations that are actually doing this. There is growing public distrust of the court system because of the types of actions I described to you today. Those are some of the problems that we've clearly identified.
Our recommendations are: (1) On the Courts of Justice Act we would, as a general principle, like to see the use of recording devices permitted in the courtroom by lawyers, persons representing themselves and members of the media for the purposes of supplementing their notes, and that this be permitted without the approval of the judge. I believe that a similar recommendation was made by the Panel on Justice and the Media to the Attorney General's office. I think it was dated August 25. A committee was struck by the Attorney General and it made the same recommendation. We believe that this measure alone will save the province tens of millions of dollars, because right now perjury is rampant in our courts. We believe that a lot of the shenanigans going on are going to go away if people have another way of verifying what was said in the court, strictly for the purpose of supplementing notes.
The second recommendation is that we would like to see all these misleading signs taken down. They're clearly intended to mislead the citizens of Ontario. If signs have to be placed about recording, then simply tell the truth: Other than what's allowed under law, recording is against the law. That's fine, but at least put a reference sentence in there that says "except where permitted by law." People have requested this of the Attorney General and there's been no response. In fact, one worker with the Attorney General's office wrote a letter back and stated that the independence of the judiciary is the cornerstone of the Canadian justice system. Well, I'm afraid there are a lot of people who would challenge that statement. Judges are supposed to act within the law and protect people's rights under the law, not make their own law under the term "judicial independence."
Even citizens -- if someone has one of those new camera phones; I don't have one -- are being stopped and told they can't bring camera phones into court. Again, it's almost like paranoia. The people of Ontario are assumed to be guilty and are going to commit a crime before they even walk into court. People should be allowed to take their cellphones and stuff in there. There's a law that says that if you use it, you're going to get fined and you are possibly going to go to jail. Most people aren't that stupid. What are you going to do if you have a recording or if you snap a picture with your camera phone? If anybody finds that, you're going to be in jail. We have to assume that the citizens of Ontario are law-abiding people and are going to go into the courts just like I am. I have a cellphone on me. I have no evil purposes with it today.
The other issue we would like to see: We have a recommendation that the judges' reviewing of transcripts be stopped immediately. We don't need people at a salary of over a quarter-million dollars reading over things that aren't supposed to be changed. What's going on? Why are we paying judges a quarter of a million dollars and more to sit back and read papers which the people of Ontario expect are supposed to come out word for word as said? Something isn't right, and the people of Ontario would certainly think that there's something wrong here. This may be one of the reasons why transcripts are taking --
The Chair: Last minute; one minute.
Mr. Beck: Okay, I've almost run out, eh?
Other than that, I'm going to read from a quote from the late Prime Minister John Diefenbaker: "We must vigilantly stand on guard within our own borders for human rights and fundamental freedoms which are our proud heritage ... we cannot take for granted the continuance and maintenance of those rights and freedoms." Members of the committee, I believe that if Prime Minister Diefenbaker were alive today, he would be deeply disappointed by what he sees going on in some of our courts. It's time for the government to get our justice system back on track and ensure that our justice system holds up to the most rigid tests of transparency and accountability.
I thank the committee for the time here today.
The Chair: Thank you very much.
Mr. Kormos: Chair, if I may, this presenter made reference to, "Most people aren't that stupid in terms of their cellphones." We should note that at least once a day one of the members of this committee has a cellphone or BlackBerry ring off or buzz off.
The Chair: Thank you, sir.