Do Judges have a Public Relations Problem?

Recently the TV show This Hour has 22 Minutes did a piece on Canadian judges. It’s a riveting piece on the public’s perception of judges.

The skit called “Judges: a Danger to Canadian Women” can be viewed here: http://www.cbc.ca/22minutes/videos/clips-season-24/judges-a-danger-to-canadian-women. At first viewers think the show is commenting on xenophobia, then it turns out to be about judges.

The judiciary should take this piece seriously. It is a current temperature read on the public’s feelings towards judges.

Is it fair that judges are seen negatively?

No. Most judges are excellent, care about justice, and are deeply competent.

Despite this, the public sees things differently. The internet has transformed the way we receive information. However, our courts have failed to reflect this change. Simply rendering decisions in dense, legalese is not enough. The public expects and requires our courts to communicate with them in a way that they understand.

I hope that our courts can adapt new ways of explaining itself to the public. Including explaining our judicial system, explaining the law, and explaining their decisions in novel ways.

To find new ways of doing things, we need to ask questions. Why are decisions only provided with written reasons? We now can create videos. We can create flowcharts. We can create graphics. We can use social media.

Also, why do we televise Supreme Court proceedings and not others? What about matters at the Ontario Court of Appeal? What about trials of national importance or of great public interest? Wouldn’t seeing great lawyers and great judges in action increase our faith in our judiciary?

Of course the medium would need to be adjusted accordingly. But if our courts want to continue to maintain the public’s trust, then it needs to look seriously at how it communicates with the public. Public trust in the judiciary is integral to democratic order.

(Views expressed in this blog are my own and do not reflect the views of any organization.)

Should the Courts Have a Spokesperson?

fullsizerender-3

The internet has democratized criticism. Anyone with a Twitter account, Facebook account, LinkedIn account, etc can voice their opinion. And with it has come greater mistrust of our courts. Some of it unfounded.

In “Justice Understood”, Patrick McCann gives the examples of the Ghomeshi and Duffy trial. “When Ghomeshi and Duffy were each eventually acquitted, the judges’ rulings in both cases were met with massive public outrage leading to vitriolic criticism of the lawyers and judges involved – criticism that was extrapolated to the justice system [as a whole]… People didn’t understand how the judge could allow evidence of past romantic history between the complainants and Ghomeshi to be presented. Some claimed defence counsel Marie Henein crossed the line in her cross-examination.”

But some of this public criticism of our courts is rooted in a misunderstanding of the justice system. To ameliorate this problem, Patrick McCann explores the idea of anointing a spokesperson for our courts.

So, who would this spokesperson be?

This spokesperson could be a judge or a lawyer. Someone with a deep understanding of the law and the ability to answer questions about the courts. Essentially a press secretary.

How would this work?

This person could hold press conferences, explain court decisions and laws in short Youtube videos, and be responsible for social media. The parameters would have to be carefully thought out. As there is a fine line between explaining and spin. And when it comes to our courts, there is no room for a spin doctor.

Is this necessary?

Yes.  Only 57% of Canadians have faith in the justice system.

In this new age of social media, everybody expects there to be two-way communication. So, the silence of our courts sends a message. This message can be interpreted in a myriad of ways. Including that our courts just don’t give a damn about the average Canadian. And that only the elite are entitled to understand its rituals and its rules.

When this “broken telephone” occurs between the courts and the public, there is a democratic deficit. A deficit that our courts must try to reduce. And by anointing a press secretary, our courts can begin to close the gap in the public’s knowledge.