Open Court Principle vs. Privacy – Is there a Clear Winner?
The Supreme Court of Canada recently delivered its judgment in Sherman Estate v. Donovan. In this case, a prominent couple was found dead in their home in 2017, and intense press scrutiny followed. The deaths remain unsolved and are being investigated as homicides. In these circumstances, it comes as no surprise that the estate trustees sought sealing orders in respect of the applications for probate. The relief was granted in the first instance, but on appeal by the Toronto Star, the sealing orders were lifted. The executors then unsuccessfully appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.
The judgment of the Court was delivered by Kasirer J., who clarified the test for discretionary limits on court openness established in Sierra Club as requiring an applicant to establish that (1) court openness poses a serious risk to an important public interest, (2) the order sought is necessary to prevent this serious risk to the identified interest because reasonably alternative measures will not prevent the risk, and (3) as a matter of proportionality, the benefits of the order outweigh its negative effects.
The Court disagreed with the estate trustees’ argument that an unbounded interest in privacy qualifies as an important public interest. Citing the principle of openness as the rule and covertness as the exception, the Court narrowed the dimension of privacy to the protection of dignity. Therefore, the information revealed by court openness must consist of intimate or personal details, which the Court describes as the “biographical core”, in order to qualify as a serious risk to an important public interest. Additionally, the Court readily recognized that a risk to physical safety is an important public interest.
Given that in the Sherman case the information sought to be protected was not highly sensitive, it was found that the risk to privacy was not serious. Though the Court appreciated that the disclosure of the probate application may be the source of discomfort, it concluded that it did not constitute an affront to dignity, and the fact that some of the beneficiaries of the estates may be minors was not sufficient to meet the seriousness threshold. Additionally, though the feared physical harm was grave, the Court agreed with the Toronto Star that the probability of harm was speculative.
Despite the Court’s pronouncement that dignity is in need of protection, as it is a fairly narrow aspect of privacy, it seems to me that the resolute observance of the open court principle came out as the clear winner in this case.
Thanks for reading and have a great day,
Natalia R. Angelini