Access to public court documents, like the justice system itself, is built on principles of democratic society. Yet the nuances and technicalities of that system can produce outcomes that might not accord with the principles.
Accessing court records isn’t as straightforward a process as one would think. It requires time, effort, skill and money.
There’ve been two recent times I’ve needed access to court records. One involved a violent crime in which the accused pled guilty last year. A victim of the crime had come to the News-Optimist wanting to tell their story.
At provincial court, I filled out a form asking what information I wanted and what I wanted it for.
I didn’t know the names of the sections of information in a file I have access to. I was expecting a request for “All the info you can give” would be at least a few pages. I was given one page called an information, and after two clerks had a discussion, a copy of the sentence. Copies are 50 cents each.
The two pages had some of what I needed, but not all. I was told the next best thing to obtain was a transcript of the court appearance (a document that contains everything that was said in court.) A clerk in North Battleford would contact Transcript Services in Regina, and I would have to wait to hear from them.
About a week later, I got a letter in the mail from Transcript Services. The letter said each page of transcript would cost $2.75, and they wanted a $75 deposit, which would be refunded based on the amount of pages of the transcript.
When the victim first came to us, I expected to be finished the story before the Stanley trial, but we pushed back timelines and I didn’t get the deposit in until after the verdict was announced. I haven’t heard anything yet from Transcript Services, and it’s been a week and a half since we sent the deposit. The story can’t move forward without the proper information.
Accessing records to a particular case last week was vexing.
Local whistleblowers who have been in contact with the News-Optimist for some time are concerned about the legal goings-on of their First Nation. They attended a court appearance last year, with the date of the next court appearance to take place last week.
I had the court appearance date written down, but when I went to provincial court, it didn’t seem like the case was written on the docket (the list posted in the courthouse that lists the people, crimes of which they are accused, and what’s to happen that day in court.) I sat in court for an hour but none of the court appearances were what I was looking for.
I phoned the whistleblower to ask if for sure the court session was supposed to be in North Battleford. Yes, he said. And for sure you gave me the right date and time? Yes.
I asked the clerk at provincial court if she knew what case I was referring to. She asked was it a criminal, civil, or small claims case I was looking for? All I knew was that it involved a particular dollar figure and a particular violation. Maybe it was small claims, but the North Battleford court only dealt with small claims matters below $30,000. Court of Queen’s Bench in Battleford dealt with small claims above $30,000. So they might have the file.
I crossed the bridge, and gave the Battleford clerk the information I had. She looked at a list of cases the First Nation was involved in but didn’t know to which particular case I was referring.
I phoned the whistleblower back and asked for everything he remembered about the case. He remembered the last court date, but not the specific accuser. He said the last court session was in North Battleford.
The clerk in Battleford still couldn’t find anything, so I crossed back over the bridge.
At provincial court, the last court date was enough to determine what case was supposed to take place that day. Sure enough, they had the file. It turned out the court date had been pushed back to a later date, but the whistleblowers didn’t know.
Fifty cents later, all the information I could get regarding the case was an information. I was told the best, most efficient way to get information about court appearances was to attend court appearances.
Since I knew the whistleblowers would come back to the paper, I thought it’d be a good idea to get all the information on the First Nation I could as soon as possible to avoid the rigamarole later.
Since I had seen earlier that Battleford had a list of cases, I went back over the bridge and requested all criminal and civil files pertaining to the First Nation.
The clerk at Battleford said it was quite the request, and searching would take time. She said accessing records is more efficient if the searcher knows dates, alleged crimes, accusers and accused.
I got to talking about my weird day. Why didn’t the whistleblowers know who the accuser was when they went to the last court appearance? They didn’t know they needed to know, I said. Why didn’t you ask about the particular sections of the file that you needed? I didn’t know what I needed to know.
“I hope they pay you for this,” she said.
Searching for court records wrapped up around 3 p.m. It took five hours of driving back and forth and asking questions.
I have no idea if how I went about it was at all smart or efficient. But I can’t help but think what a discouraging, intimidating and frustrating a process accessing court records would be for local residents with no experience with this kind of stuff. It isn’t user friendly.
Things shouldn’t be improved for the sake of reporters; our job is to figure out how to hit curveballs. But things should be better for the sake of people knowing there are potentially dangerous people in their communities, or people who are at the mercy of ineffective leadership and whose only way to convince locals to do something about it is to go to court records.
Reporters have a role to play in this social process and local media is important: they’ll take the time and spend the money (at no cost to the person asking) to figure out how to dig things up.
But getting reporters to take new complicated stories from scratch isn’t always easy, especially in a newsroom of two or three responsible to a readership of 20,000 or more. Members of the public already having court records increases the chances reporters will pick stories up and decreases the amount of time it takes to get stories out.
Public access shouldn’t mean all information should be open at any time to whoever on the internet, since it would be liable to be misused. The current system involving paper documents in respective courts and clerks who are there to help you has its annoyances, but to some extent it’s a check that the information will be used responsibly.
But to improve the experience, accessing court records could be cheaper, so that a 10-page court transcript doesn’t cost almost $30, especially when, if you’re new to the process, it might not even have what you’re looking for.
If access to information by the public is important to the Justice ministry, they could choose to provide more support to front line people who deal with requests from a public that may not be sure what they require. While it’s wrong to assume the inability to access information at a certain time is due to court system secrecy rather than, say, practical reasons such as a particularly hectic schedule, people will assume the former.
Work, education, and familial responsibilities are all barriers that can prevent the public from participating in the court process. Other barriers should be more preventable.