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Supreme Court partly allows media appeal over ‘secret trial’ in Quebec

MONTREAL — Canada’s Supreme Court has partially upheld a media appeal over a closed-door trial in Quebec involving a police informant, but the Supreme Court insists no “secret trial” took place.

MONTREAL — Canada’s Supreme Court has partially upheld a media appeal over a closed-door trial in Quebec involving a police informant, but the Supreme Court insists no “secret trial” took place.

The judge and the Quebec Court of Appeal acted correctly by withholding information that could identify the informant, such as the nature of the crime, where it allegedly occurred and the name of the judge involved in the case, it said Supreme Court decided unanimously on Friday. The case had no docket number and the names of the lawyers involved were also withheld from the public.

However, the Supreme Court said that part of the judicial proceedings could have been kept on the docket of the court, even in a case where the proceedings are held ‘behind closed doors’, that is, privately, without public or media access .

“We find it difficult to imagine a single scenario in which revealing the mere existence of a closed-door hearing and of any decision taken as a result is incompatible with the protection of an informant’s anonymity, so that their existence ​​must remain confidential indefinitely,” the court wrote. .

The original case involved an informant convicted of participating in a crime that he revealed to the police. The existence of the trial only became public because the informant appealed their conviction and the Court of Appeal released a redacted decision in March 2022 that set aside the conviction and was highly critical of what it called a “secret trial.”

Lawyers for the province’s attorney general, the chief justice of the Quebec court and several media organizations, including The Canadian Press, went to the Quebec Court of Appeal to obtain details about the case and the informant.

However, that appeal failed when the Court of Appeal ruled in July 2022 that it could not release information, saying that the right of informants to remain anonymous overrides the principle that legal proceedings are open to the public. This ruling was appealed to the Supreme Court.

In its ruling on Friday, the Supreme Court criticized the Court of Appeal’s use of the word “secret trial” and claimed that no such thing took place. It said the proceedings against the informant “began in public by filing a criminal charge” and were only made private when the suspect decided to file a motion for a stay of proceedings based on the state’s alleged abuse against them as a police informant.

“The scope of the controversy could also have been limited if the Court of Appeal had not used the expression ‘secret trial’ to describe what was actually held behind closed doors in a proceeding that commenced and initially continued publicly,” it wrote .

“This phrase is not only inaccurate, but is unnecessarily alarmist and has no basis in Canadian law.”

The Supreme Court noted that both the original judge and the Court of Appeal correctly fulfilled their duty to protect the identity of the police informant, but that both courts could have provided more information without compromising that goal.

The Supreme Court said the judge could have initiated “parallel proceedings” regarding the informant’s request for a stay. That, they said, could have been kept separate from the original criminal proceedings, protecting the informant while allowing the release of a docket number and a redacted version of the verdict.

It also ordered the Court of Appeal to prepare a redacted version of the original judgment, which both protects the identity of the informant and better respects the principle of open court hearings.

However, the court rejected an argument from media companies that rules on disclosure of information should be relaxed and that judges should be forced to let third parties – including the media – know that an informant wants to protect his identity.

The court said judges should retain the right to choose whether to inform journalists about an informant’s request for privilege, noting that “one cannot rule out the possibility that a rigid rule would prevent an informant’s anonymity in a particular case is preserved.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2024.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

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