Why Recording CCTV is Illegal in These Courthouses

By: Carlton Purvis, Published on Mar 13, 2014

Americans expect to see surveillance cameras inside government buildings, especially courtrooms where emotions run high, violent criminals are being transported back and forth, and there’s always an air of unfinished business. In some parts of Canada, however, recording is prohibited in courthouses -- and that’s not just a ban for media, it includes CCTV. In this note, we examine the recent attention focused on Ontario courts after citizens noticed a dome camera in one courtroom.

Background

The Ontario Court of Justice in Caledon, Ontario is under fire for installing a surveillance camera in its courtroom. A few citizens noticed it and tipped off the Toronto Sun. They feel it is a violation of a law that prohibits video recording in courtrooms.

The court says the camera was installed last year. In an interview with court manager, Darlene Noakes, she told me the camera was installed for security and to allow the court officer to simultaneously take care of administrative work while watching over the courtroom.

The Toronto Sun says the court is worried about an up-and-coming violent libertarian movement, however, Noakes says the installation was not in response to any specific threats.

Apparently there was an incident a few years ago too:

The Law

The Ontario Courts of Justice Act prohibits anyone from making video recordings of court proceedings. Specifically, the law says “no person shall take or attempt to take a photograph, motion picture, audio recording or other record capable of producing visual or aural representations by electronic means or otherwise.”

But the recording ban doesn’t just apply to the courtroom, it also prohibits recording people entering or leaving the courtroom or making video recordings of anyone in the building who may be there “for the purpose of attending or leaving a hearing.” That probably covers most people in a courthouse.

If a person was to record they could face a $25,000 fine or six months in jail [link no longer available], or both. The exception to the law is audio recordings which are allowed as long as they are done in an “unobtrusive manner.”

Ontario is the only jurisdiction with this type recording restriction, but overall, electronic coverage of trials in Canada is rare, according to the Canadian Journal of Communication.

Ontario's provincial law enforcement agency says they have seen similar setups in other Ontario courtrooms and that it is legal.


Camera The Most Cost Effective Option

“What we were really looking for when we did the court renovation was a one-way window that would be sufficient for the officer to work and to view the courtroom. This was actually a cheaper alternative. We called it a digital window," Noakes said. The purchase and installation was approved by a regional justice of the peace. They paid $508 for it.

The camera, an Axis M3006 (installed in a corner overlooking the room), is not recording. The court staff interprets the law to mean cameras and recording devices can be present in the courtroom as long as they are not recording or attempting to record. For example, a man was arrested in 2010, not for having a camera in the courtroom, but for refusing to stop recording [link no longer available].

“There are no plans to do any recording, that would be illegal,” Noakes said.

The Toronto Sun questions the effectiveness of that setup.

“What use is a live feed to a multi-tasking court officer if someone suddenly bursts into the courtroom when his eyes are averted?” the paper asks.

Noakes says it's better than the option they had before a camera. The court officer is required to watch the courtroom and complete administrative work and the camera allows him to more effectively do both, she said. In the past an officer had to split his time between the courtroom and the office, leaving the courtroom with no eyes on it at all.

The main value of surveillance cameras is for evidence after the fact. Will this camera help stop a person from pouring a can of gasoline all over the place? Probably not. But it would at least let the court officer see the smoke.

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