Riot TV plan could backfire on Clark

For an astute politician, Premier Christy Clark is making some odd moves.

For an astute politician, Premier Christy Clark is making some odd moves.

First there were the attack ads on Conservative leader John Cummins, which worked mostly to raise his profile in a positive way. It was a big boost for a leader still unknown in much of the province.

And now there is the weird push for televised trials of people charged in the Stanley Cup riots, which  drew attention to the big problems in the justice system that her government hasn’t fixed – and has in fact made worse – over the past decade.

Clark says the public is interested in the court proceedings ands the riot was televised, so the trials and other court proceedings should be too. (She actually went farther, with comments that indicated she had abandoned the notion that people are considered innocent until proved otherwise.)

Televised court proceedings would be a good thing. Most people have never been inside a courtroom and have little idea of what goes on. Television could help change that.

There are potential problems. Some witnesses might be reluctant to testify if they thought they were going to be on the evening news.

Lawyers might be tempted to perform for the cameras.

But cameras covered the Dziekanski inquiry, with no obvious ill effects. In the U.S., proceedings have been televised for years, generally successfully.

Still, if Clark and the government wanted televised trials, they could have started serious work long ago. Leaping in with a poorly considered bid to single out one group of accused people for political reasons is a poor way to advance openness.

That’s only one problem. The justice branch and Crown prosecutors are supposed to have a high degree of independence from their political masters.

The idea is that they act in the interests of justice and shouldn’t take orders from politicians, preventing, for example, the use of the courts to harass opponents of government policy.

The justice branch rejected Clark’s throne speech call for televised trials and said prosecutors wouldn’t be making the requests.

That forced Attorney General Shirley Bond to issue an extraordinary order forcing the prosecutors to seek televised proceedings in riot cases.

It’s highly unusual political interference. Bond said it had happened in the past, but Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer reported the government cited three cases. “One was a directive to seek leave to appeal a sentence to the Supreme Court of Canada,” Palmer wrote. “One a directive to ‘consider, if appropriate’ applying to vary a probation order. The third created a brief amnesty from prosecution to encourage people to turn in firearms and other weapons.”

The whole controversy was also a reminder that another hockey season has already started and no one has been charged in connection with the riots.

The effort could also continue to be an embarrassment. Crown prosecutors can apply to open the court to cameras, but the judges decide. Defence lawyers and others involved will want a say. Clark’s ploy could add more delays to an already overburdened system. Excessive delays have resulted in dozens of cases being thrown out this year, including serious offences like drug trafficking and assaults on police. Families are waiting unreasonable times for critical hearing dates.

There are lots of factors in the delays, and some long-term solutions.

But the immediate issue is that there just aren’t enough judges, prosecutors and courtrooms to hold the needed hearings. There were 143 provincial court judges in 2005; today there are 127. The courts simply can’t cope with the volume of cases.

You can see how a few people tossing around ideas for the throne speech might come up with the notion of scoring some points with this gimmick.

But it’s hard to understand why someone didn’t think harder about the many potential problems, both practical and political.

Footnote: A new Ipsos Reid poll confirmed the Liberals are having political problems. The NDP has the support of 45 per cent of decided voters, with the Liberals at 38 per cent. Cummins and the Conservatives, with the Liberals’ help, are at 12 per cent and the Greens six per cent. Adrian Dix has stronger approvasl numbers than Clark, but she seen as the person who would make the best premier by more voters.