Supreme Court of Canada makes oral judgments from bench more transparent, accessible to public

By Cristin Schmitz

Law360 Canada (December 6, 2022, 3:48 PM EST) -- Responding to media requests to make its frequent oral judgments from the bench more accessible and transparent, the Supreme Court of Canada has rolled out a new communications process that quickly alerts the public to oral judgments — most of which previously languished in practical obscurity — and also makes available same-day video clips (with bilingual interpretation) of the judges’ oral rulings.

Under its new communications process, from Nov. 30 to Dec. 6, the top court sent, within hours or less, same-day news releases, with hyperlinks to video clips posted on the court’s website of four oral judgments from the bench (all in as-of-right criminal appeals). See here for the latest release.

The move accords with the high priority Chief Justice of Canada Richard Wagner and the court he leads put on helping the public see and understand its work; it also follows a formal request last May from the 303-member Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery which asked the court to consider creating a joint court-media working group to explore how the court’s oral rulings could be more effectively and speedily communicated.

Chief Justice Richard Wagner

Chief Justice Richard Wagner

Problems for the media and public associated with the practical obscurity shrouding the court’s oral judgments from the bench were previously highlighted by stories in The Lawyer’s Daily (as were complaints from some senior criminal bar members that the growing phenomenon since 2014 of rendering oral judgments, without written reasons to follow, often, but not exclusively, in criminal as-of-right cases, is in itself a problem for discerning the common law.)

The matter is of no small import as oral rulings from the Supreme Court of Canada’s bench have made up from 30 to nearly 40 per cent of the top court’s docket of appeals in recent years.

Yet most oral Supreme Court decisions have flown right under the radar of the public, media and bar/bench — notwithstanding that outcomes for some of the cases are of considerable public interest, at least locally (and sometimes nationally). The court also uses oral rulings from the bench at times to clarify points of law, yet those judgments have received mostly little or no attention.

Chief Justice Wagner was alive to those issues. Writing Dec. 2, in a letter addressed to the members of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery’s Supreme Court of Canada committee (of which The Lawyer’s Daily is a member), Chief Justice Wagner said “I am pleased to inform you that the Supreme Court of Canada has recently implemented a new process to assist in the reporting of oral judgments rendered from the Bench. ... It is my sincere hope that this new process will further support your ongoing coverage of the court, including timely coverage of oral judgments. The court is always looking for more effective ways to ensure Canadians understand its judgments and its role in safeguarding the rule of law and our democracy.”

The chief justice also thanked the press gallery’s committee for raising the matter with the judges of his court’s media liaison committee. “As always, members of your committee brought constructive suggestions to the table,” he said.

He said the Supreme Court will continue to post its formal signed judgments, once issued, on the court’s website.

Eugene Meehan, Supreme Advocacy LLP

Eugene Meehan, Supreme Advocacy LLP

Eugene Meehan of Ottawa’s Supreme Advocacy LLP, a former Supreme Court of Canada executive legal officer, whose responsibilities included assisting the media, called the top court’s latest communications initiative “definitely a positive development.”

“Nobody reads yesterday’s news,” he explained. “Information is about speed of access, not merely content. The public, the profession, the media, all benefit from having timely transparency when it comes to judgments.”

Alluding to the reality that the court’s issuance of written transcriptions and translations of oral judgments from the bench can take several days, Meehan noted that “we live in a fast news cycle, so any judgment that comes out in bits and pieces can be too easily overlooked.”

“The Supreme Court now sets the example for other Canadian courts,” he suggested, sending “a signal that courts should do what they can to ensure the timely release of all their judgments, even ones that are short and may not necessarily have attracted much attention.”

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