As many people are aware, British Columbia court records are available for free public viewing on the Court Services Online (CSO) website: https://justice.gov.bc.ca/cso/esearch/criminal/partySearch.do
Surprising to some, the CSO website contains data entries for all matters before the courts: not just criminal convictions, but also outstanding charges for which accused persons, who are presumed innocent, have not yet had their trials. Perhaps most surprising is that until June of this year, CSO made available for free public viewing even matters where accused persons had been found not guilty and acquitted. The issue here is to balance people’s privacy interest with the “open courts” concept which, essentially, allows for the community at large to be able to see what goes on in the province’s court rooms.
Reconsidering its longstanding policy to publish most court information on CSO, the Office of the Chief Judge of the Provincial Court, decided only recently that it was no longer in the interest of justice to publish information relating to acquittals and dismissals. The policy was changed to reflect the notion that many people consider criminal charges that result in non-convictions to be stigmatizing to the people that had been charged. Over the years, our office has had to deal with several former accused people who, justifiably, were upset that even though they were found not guilty at trial, their record of non-conviction continued haunt them on the internet. We are certainly grateful that the Office of the Chief Judge seems to have taken our, and our clients’, view into account in changing its policy.
Our office just received an invitation to make submissions on the policy to continue or discontinue listing Peace Bond cases on CSO. We responded by submitting that Peace Bond information ought not be available on CSO once the term of the Peace Bond has expired.
The Office of the Chief Judge clearly has recognized that the right to privacy outweighs the “open courts” concept with regard to discharges, stays, withdrawals and most recently acquittals and dismissals. That office acknowledges that individuals can be negatively affected by the stigma that can attach to even those criminal cases that result in non-convictions.
Peace Bonds, of course, are not a criminal convictions. No finding of criminal conduct has occurred, although cause for entering into the Peace Bond was established. This cause amounts to the applicant reasonably having fear for his or her safety based on the respondents’ non-criminal actions.
We believe that there is indeed some public interest in publishing the existence of a Peace Bond during its term. The essence of a Peace Bond is that, based on a complainant’s reasonable apprehension of fear, the Court places the respondent on conditions (usually) in the form of a restraining order for the benefit of the applicant’s safety. In our view, however, one must remember that the respondent is not an “accused” and there is no guiding of guilt. In this sense, Peace Bonds are on the same footing as charges that have resulted in a discharge, stay, withdrawal, acquittal or dismissal.
Peace Bonds, even after they have expired on their terms, currently remain viewable on CSO. Because they are not “convictions” for which one can apply for a record suspension after the passage of a waiting period, Peace Bonds remain permanently viewable.
As one of the policy options suggested by the Chief Judge sets out, there could be a, perhaps, 5-year time limit for CSO access to Peace Bonds. While this arguably serves as an “automatic record suspension” for Peace Bonds, in our view, 5 years is too long for a non-criminal conviction.
Our view is that a fair balancing between an “open courts” policy and the right to privacy with respect to Peace Bonds is for the information to be viewable on CSO only while the Peace Bond is “alive”. Once its term has expired, CSO access ought to be terminated.