Thumbs Down: Four Men Face Criminal Charges for Posting Court Footage on Instagram
In a recent Blog we discussed a little known-fact around legal decorum: the Ontario Courts have strict policies and prohibitions around the use of electronic devices in the courtroom. These cover a wide array of potential uses, not to mention innumerable forms of technology – including computers, personal electronic and digital devices, and smartphones of all types. They are formalized in a set of practice directions issued to the public by the court itself.
Under those strictures, any person who attends in the courtroom – be it a civil litigant, a criminal accused, witness, lawyer or merely an observer – can find themselves in legal trouble if they have used an electronic device in a manner that: 1) is inconsistent with the stated prohibitions; 2) is found unacceptable by the presiding judge; or 3) is in breach of one of the judge’s orders.
A breach of the practice directions can prompt one of several reactions: On the milder end, the person can simply be ordered by the judge to turn off the device, or leave it outside the courtroom. On the more severe end, the person might find themselves being cited and prosecuted for civil contempt, or charged with various offences.
It seems that four Toronto men have recently learned all of this the hard way. As was reported in a legal news media source, the Toronto police have charged them with several criminal offences, after they were caught recording and making Instagram posts of some images and audio taken during an Ontario court hearing earlier this year.
The posts included pictures of a particular witness in mid-testimony during a virtual preliminary hearing. The men were apparently trying to intimidate the witness away from giving further testimony in related proceedings.
The four men were charged under the Criminal Code with obstructing justice, intimidating a witness, and failing to comply with a publication ban that had been imposed pursuant to the Criminal Code. The Toronto Police Service recently released a statement here.
The situation sends a clear message that this kind of snap-happy social media activity can be subject to harsh criminal sanctions. Respect for courtroom solemnity, decorum, and evidentiary safeguards must remain, even while the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted the conversion of most in-person hearings into remote ones that rely heavily on easy-share technology like Zoom.
True, the “open court” principle is a fundamental tenet of the Canadian justice system, but this doesn’t mean that members of the public have unfettered access to what goes on in a court hearing. Nor do they have free reign to disseminate images or audio – particularly if the integrity of the system might be jeopardized as a result.