Kim Johnson – April 2020
Although individual families may prefer privacy over public access, in times of chaos and national crisis, accountability and transparency into government operations, including the court system, arguably becomes even more important. The Courts in Nova Scotia have implemented a system trying to balance transparency with public health measures.
The issue of media access to family court proceedings has always been challenging for families, who prefer to maintain their privacy in these difficult moments. However, it has long been held that the need for the court system to be open and transparent outweighs individual privacy needs in most cases. With a few exceptions, such as child protection matters, our court process is a public one, where members of the public and the media can sit in the courtroom, access court files, and obtain recordings of court proceedings. Considering this, how is the court handling media access during COVID-19, when only emergency matters are being addressed, primarily by telephone?
Pursuant to a Memorandum issued by Jennifer Stairs, Communications Director for the Nova Scotia Judiciary, media access to court cases will continue during the pandemic, modified only as needed to protect court staff and judges, the media, and participants.
If a matter is being heard in person at the courthouse, members of the media will still be permitted to attend in person. Most matters are now being conducted by telephone, and in such cases, members of the media may arrange to listen in with their phones on mute.
General access to court files has been suspended, except for urgent or essential matters approved for hearing. The media may still obtain access to these files by way of a request to the Communications Director. The same is true for access to audio recordings of court proceedings – access to historical recordings has been suspended, but the media may obtain copies of recordings of urgent and essential matters (which are the only one currently being heard).
For the time being, the court dockets, including for the Family Division, are not being posted on-line. Once the court finalizes the process for prioritizing and rescheduling matters, the court will begin sharing dockets by email to subscribed media member. In the meantime, details of newly scheduled urgent or essential matters can be obtained by contacting the Communications Director.
See the memo from the Communications Director at: https://courts.ns.ca/News_of_Courts/documents/COVID19_Media_Access_NR_04_08_20.pdf