The case of Stanley Okeh has raised an important issue around the definition of open court.
With few exceptions, testimony in our Canadian court system is open to the public’s ear. Not only are court proceedings regarded as being of public importance and interest, but access to the contents of those proceedings is seen as a safeguard to our democracy.
A frequent issue before judges is the matter of publication of the names involved in court cases. In the main, those who come before the courts are open to being identified to the public.
Judges have discretionary power to order that names remain in confidence when circumstances indicate there would be significant harm to individuals by making their identities known. In other words, protection of the rights of the individual is sometimes placed above the interests of the whole.
One such exception is in the identification of the victims of sexual assault.
In general, anything that might lead to the public being able to identify a victim of such an assault is not available for dissemination. At times, that can even include the identity of the accused — for example, when knowing the name of the accused would be likely to expose the identity of the victim due to a family relationship.
But that principle has to be administered carefully, as the provincial court case of Stanley Okeh demonstrates. He is in court not on a sexual assault charge, but from a charge stemming from the manner in which he spanked his child.
For the first several days of proceedings in that case, media were prohibited from publishing his name or anything about him. The reason was that an interim publication ban was granted aimed at keeping the name of the victim — his daughter — from being revealed. Defence lawyers also specifically asked that Okeh’s name be banned from publication.
At first glance, it seemed routine. However, there is no logical reason nor specific prohibition for banning publication of the identity of someone who has been spanked, nor of the person accused of doing the spanking.
Names of sexual-assault victims are banned from publication because a stigma is seen to exist against these victims. It isn’t morally right that there’s such a stigma, but there is one and as long as victims feel the touch of it we as a society have correctly chosen to protect them from it.
There’s no similar stigma to being spanked or to being the victim of other types of violence. The sole issue in this instance is whether a caregiver committed an act of unacceptable punishment on a child.
The Daily News challenged the bans that had been applied for on the identities of those involved in the Okeh case because withholding the names of those who come before the courts should be sanctioned only with considerable caution.
The principles involved in banning the names of sexual assault victims simply do not apply to the Okeh case. It was a matter of a parent administering a form of discipline that has come under the eye of the court.
Judge Stella Frame is to be commended for having an open mind on the matter of the ban applications, and Crown and defence lawyers made the right decision in abandoning their applications to keep the names of those involved in this case secret.
We Say editorials represent the viewpoint of The Daily News and are written by editor Robert Koopmans, city editor Tracy Gilchrist, news editor Mike Cornell or associate news editors Dan Spark and Mark Rogers.