Federal Crown | Hundreds of hidden criminal file numbers

For more than a year, the federal Crown illegally attempted to prevent the public from having access to hundreds of criminal file numbers opened in Quebec, confirms an investigation by the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada launched at the request of The Press.




What there is to know

In 2022, The Press asked to obtain the list of all criminal cases for which the federal Crown had laid charges on Quebec soil, over a given period.

The Public Prosecution Service of Canada refused to release case numbers, which would have allowed us to follow legal proceedings. At the time, the organization was in the hot seat for having participated in a “secret trial” criticized by the Quebec Court of Appeal.

The Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada ruled in favor of The Press and ruled that the information should have been released.

The Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC), the federal agency responsible for initiating criminal prosecutions, admitted its fault following the intervention of the Office of the Information Commissioner. But to explain its conduct, the organization surprisingly pleaded that its staff was unaware of how the registry of a courthouse works, a counter where any member of the public can have access to court files.

Almost 100% redacted

The case dates back to 2022. As part of its coverage of court cases, The Press made a request to the PPSC under the Access to Information Actin order to obtain the list of all judicial file numbers associated with criminal proceedings brought in Quebec territory by the federal Crown during the years 2020 and 2021.

It is possible to obtain these numbers by visiting the courthouses of the 36 judicial districts in Quebec, from the Îles-de-la-Madeleine to Kuujjuaq, including Amos, La Tuque, Sept-Îles and Montréal. However, the task is titanic and imposes a heavy burden on the already overworked registry staff. For anyone who wants to track court cases, it is much easier to work with the Consolidated List of Open Files, which is held by the Crown.

In response to the access to information request, however, the PPSC transmitted a list of nearly 500 file numbers that was almost 100% redacted. Only five file numbers were disclosed, because they had already been the subject of judgments made public. Everyone else was hidden.

In Canada, however, criminal proceedings are supposed to be public as soon as the charges are filed. They remain so throughout the judicial process, except in the exceptional case of closed-door orders for certain hearings. The publicity of legal proceedings stems from a centuries-old tradition.

The Press therefore filed a complaint with the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada against the PPSC, which refused to make public information that should be made public.

At that time, the federal Crown was already in the hot seat in connection with the transparency of the judicial process: the Quebec Court of Appeal had just denounced the holding of a “secret trial” and annulled the conviction of an informant police pursued by the PPSC, outside traditional channels.

A call to the Quebec courthouse

In its defense presented to the Office, the PPSC argued that if it disclosed all of the accusations it had made on Quebec soil, “it would help (The Press) to obtain information that (she) would not be able to obtain by her own means”, which he had no obligation to do, according to him.

The Office has expressed doubts about this argument. “It seemed reasonable to think that someone could go to the court office and request to obtain the files in which the PPSC initiated legal proceedings during a given period,” the organization specifies in its decision.

The PPSC was therefore asked to redo its homework. The organization claims to have had to call a courthouse to find out what information citizens have the right to access.

“The PPSC contacted the Quebec courthouse registry to obtain more details on the procedure for accessing judicial file numbers (…). The Registry confirmed that a member of the public could request a list of file numbers of criminal cases prosecuted in Quebec during a given period and would receive this information in its entirety. , we read in the Commissioner’s investigation summary.

The PPSC therefore admitted last month that it had been wrong and agreed to transmit the requested data, which will allow journalists to keep an eye on various ongoing procedures.

On March 18, the Office issued a decision confirming that the complaint of The Press was founded under the law.

“Bizarre” interpretation

Me Shakir Rahim, criminal justice program director for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, believes the federal Crown’s initial interpretation was “bizarre.”

“There are several cases for which there is no judgment published in public databases. The public must have access to legal proceedings, it is part of the foundations of democracy,” he said.

“There is a recent trend of cases where no information is available on the cause. We were worried about an erosion of the principle of publicity of debates,” underlines the lawyer.

“It says a lot about the way we think and the culture of secrecy,” adds Me Martine Valois, full professor of law at the University of Montreal and former lawyer at Justice Canada.

If the justice system must be public, then the work, the denunciations, there is no reason why it should not be public once the accusations are made.

Me Martine Valois

“The prosecutors are professional lawyers, who have ethical obligations, but within organizations like this, they are placed at odds with their ethical obligations,” laments the professor.

Asked to respond, the PPSC explained that according to the organization, the fact that information was disclosed in the context of a public proceeding in a courthouse does not mean that it can necessarily then be disclosed again in response to a request for access to information.

According to the PPSC, there are provinces in Canada where citizens cannot enter a courthouse and view criminal file numbers, which would explain the initial confusion.

“It turns out that in Quebec, a list of all judicial file numbers involving the PPSC for a period stretching over several years is something to which the public has easy access, which is not necessarily the cases across Canada,” said Nathalie Houle, spokesperson for the PPSC, without specifying which province she was referring to.

With the collaboration of William Leclerc, The Press


reference: www.lapresse.ca

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