Says Who, Again?

Peter McCormick on why “by the Court” decisions matter – and who wrote them.

A few years ago, I blogged about an attempt to unmask the authors of “per curiam” opinions of the Supreme Court of the United States by having a computer identify individual judges’ word use patterns. Although I was skeptical about the value of the exercise, I noted that if, as its authors suggested, the attribution of opinions to the Court rather than to individual judges is indeed cause for concern, then

we in Canada have a problem ― and need somebody to replicate their study for our own Supreme Court a.s.a.p. [because] [f]or over 30 years, it has had the habit of issuing opinions ‘by the Court’ in the most important and controversial cases”.

In a couple of articles published last year, Peter McCormick takes up the double challenge of identifying the authors of the anonymous decisions of Supreme Court of Canada issued since Beverley McLachlin became Chief Justice, and of describing the overall history of such decisions (including those signed by all of the judges in a majority, such as the one in l’Affaire Nadon), going back to when they first became a significant factor in the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence.

Prof. McCormick details this history in  “‘By the Court’: The Untold Story of a Canadian Judicial Innovation“. Although the device of unanimous and anonymous decisions has been in use for almost as long as the Court has existed, it is only in the 1960s that it was deployed in significant cases, rather than minor procedural ones. And it was, prof. McCormick suggests, something of an accident. The Court issued its first anonymous opinion, signed by the eight members of the majority, in Reference Re: Steven Murray Truscott, [1967] SCR 309, in which, as prof. McCormick puts it, the government was asking the court, “Had you heard the appeal that you denied leave to eight years ago, would you
have allowed it?” (1057) In an “extraordinary” (1058) attempt to save face and resist the accusation implicit in the question, the majority issued a “joint opinion” signed by each of its members. Shortly thereafter, the precedent was applied when the Court delivered its opinion in Reference Re: Offshore Mineral Rights, [1967] SCR 792, signed this time as “the joint opinion of the Court”, and again a dozen years later, in Att. Gen. of Quebec v. Blaikie, [1979] 2 SCR 1016 ― a “revival” that prof. McCormick credits to Justices Martland and Ritchie.

Blaikie was followed by the trickle of “by the Court” opinions that has not stopped to this day: prof. McCormick counts “fifty of these in the forty-eight years since 1967, a number
that shrinks to forty-five if we treat companion cases … as single examples”. (1059) Not all of these opinions are very significant; there have been cases where the choice of unanimity was “clearly less a matter of strategic choice than of administrative convenience … where a judgment simply could not be attributed in the normal way” (1064) due to the death or health problems of its true author. But most of the anonymous decisions were in important cases, largely in various areas of constitutional law. Many unanimous opinions were delivered in response to reference questions asked by the federal government, especially when the Supreme Court was unanimous. Others arose in “cases that deal with issues that relate directly to the judiciary as an institution”, (1075) or indeed specifically with the Supreme Court ― although, as prof. McCormick notes, there have also been many cases dealing with judicial independence that were not anonymous, including the notorious Reference re Remuneration of Judges of the Provincial Court (P.E.I.), [1997] 3 S.C.R. 3. And, under the long leadership of Chief Justice McLachlin, the Supreme Court’s use of anonymous opinions is arguably more vigorous than ever.

Does this matter though? Prof. McCormick insists that it does. The “packaging” of court decisions, as well as their “content”, is significant;  “the mode of presentation” of the Supreme Court’s decisions is “the product of conscious and shared choices” (1052) by the judges, not an accident. Because the Court matters, these choices matter too. The choice to present a judgment as the opinion of the “the Court” itself, rather than any individual judge, represents the extreme case of the Court’s collective ethos prevailing over the individual ambitions of its members, and is inextricably linked to the Court’s positioning itself as an institution to be reckoned with, especially in references where the Court acts as “a unified institution providing the other half of a conversation about national governance with the federal government”. (1074) Moreover, such a choice “flatly repudiates [the] expectation”, nearly universal in common law jurisdictions, that a judge will take responsibility for his or her decisions and can be praised or criticized for them: “the whole point is that no single judge is identified and no individual accepts responsibility”. (1054)

But prof. McCormick’s other article, “Nom de Plume: Who Writes the Supreme Court’s ‘By the Court’ Judgments?”(2016) 39 Dal LJ 77 (not freely available, alas), seeks to make sure that the judges face the music, if only belatedly. Like the American paper on which my original post about “by the Court” opinions was based, it uses linguistic analysis to identify the likely authors of anonymous opinions ― in prof. McCormick’s case, those of the Supreme Court of Canada since Beverley McLachlin became Chief Justice. This should give us an insight into “how the Court is evolving in its decision-making and equally important decision-explaining process”. (84) Is the process of reaching decisions attributed to the Court as a whole the same as with other cases, or is it somehow different (for example, with an even more important role for the Chief Justice)?

The attempt isn’t entirely successful: prof. McCormick is only able to identify a “probable” author for a little more than a third of the decisions that he has analyzed. For most of the others, he points to two, and in a couple of cases to three “possible” authors. (It is of course possible that these decisions were jointly written, as some of the Court’s attributed decisions are, but it seems unlikely that all were.) And even when prof. McCormick points to a single “probable” author, this is not always a clear finding. Still, it’s an impressive achievement. For instance, prof. McCormick points to Chief Justice McLachlin as the “probable” author of both the majority opinion in l’Affaire Nadon and the Court’s opinion in the Reference re Senate Reform, 2014 SCC 32, [2014] 1 SCR 704. The Chief Justice is likely to have written or co-written many of the other “by the Court” decisions too, with a few other judges also more regular likely authors than others. Prof. McCormick concludes that more research would be warranted into the issue and, given both his partial but real success and the remaining uncertainties, it is hard to disagree.

Overall, prof. McCormick has persuaded me that my previous rather casual dismissal of the importance of this issue was misguided. “By the Court” decisions matter, as he says, because it matters how power ― including judicial power ― is exercised. While I often accept the need for confidentiality, even secrecy, in the working of government (including the courts), any given instance where government seeks to withdraw information ― perhaps especially information that it normally makes available, such as the identity of the author(s) of judicial opinions ― deserves scrutiny. An institution engaged in information-withholding should be prepared to justify itself. The Supreme Court does not do that. So long as it does not, at the very least, it should not be surprised at receiving some extra scrutiny, welcome or otherwise.

The Power of Google, Squared

I wrote, I while ago, about “the power of Google” and its role in the discussion surrounding the “right to be forgotten” ― a person’s right to force search engines to remove links to information about that person that is “inadequate, irrelevant or excessive,” whatever these things mean, even if factually true. Last week, the “right to be forgotten” was the subject of an excellent, debate ― nuanced, informative, and with interesting arguments on both sides ― hosted by Intelligence Squared U.S. I encourage you to watch the whole thing, because there is really too much there for a blog post.

I will, however, sketch out what I think was the most persuasive argument deployed by the opponents of the “right to be forgotten” ― with whom, admittedly, I agreed before watching the debate, and still do. I will also say a few words about the alternative solutions they proposed to what they agreed is a real and serious problem ― the danger that the prominence of a story about some stupid mistake or, worse, an unfounded allegation made about a person in search results come to mar his or her life forever, with no second chances possible.

Although the opponents of the “right to be forgotten,” as well as its proponents (I will refer to them as, simply, the opponents and the proponents, for brevity’s sake), made arguments sounding in high principle as well as more practical ones, the one on which the debate mostly focused, and which resonated most with me concerned the institutional arrangements that are needed to implement the “right to be forgotten.” The way it works ― and the only way it can work, according to one of the opponents, Andrew McLaughlin (the CEO of Digg and a former Director of Public Policy for Google) ― is that the person who wants a link to information about him or her removed applies to the search engine, and the search engine decides, following a secretive process and applying criteria of which it alone is aware. If the request is denied, the person who made it can apply to privacy authorities or go to court to reverse the decision. If however, the request is granted, nobody can challenge that decision. Indeed, if the European authorities had their way, nobody would even know that the decision had been made. (Telling the owner of the page to which a link is being delete, as Google has been doing, more or less defeats the purpose of the “right to be forgotten.”)

According to the opponents, this has some very unfortunate consequences. For one thing, the search engines have an incentive to err on the side of granting deletion requests ― at the very least, this avoids them the hassle of fighting appeals. One of the proponents, Chicago professor Eric Posner, suggested that market competition could check this tendency, but the opponents were skeptical that, even if users know that one search engine tends to delete more links than another, this would make any noticeable difference to its bottom line. Mostly, the proponents argued that we can rely on the meaning of the admittedly vague terms “inadequate, irrelevant or excessive” to be worked out over time, so that the decisions to delete a link or not become easier and less controversial. But another consequence of the way in which the “right to be forgotten” is implemented would actually prevent that, the opponents, especially Harvard professor Jonathan Zittrain argued. Since nobody can challenge a decision to delete a link, the courts will have no opportunity to refine the understanding of the concepts involved in the “right to be forgotten.” The upshot is that, according to the opponents anyway, the search engines (which, these days, mostly means Google) end up with a great deal of unchecked discretionary power. This is, of course, ironic, because the proponents of the “right to be forgotten” emphasize concerns about “the power of Google” as one of the reasons to support it, as typically do others who agree with them.

If the opponents are right that the “right to be forgotten” cannot be implemented in a way that is transparent, fair to all the parties concerned, at least reasonably objective, and does not increase instead of the checking “the power of Google,” what are the alternatives? The opponents offered at least three, each of them interesting in its own way. First, Mr. McLaughlin suggested that, instead of a “right to be forgotten,” people should have a right to provide a response, which search engines would have to display among their results. Second, we could have category-specific measures directed at some types of information particularly likely to be prejudicial to people, or of little public interest. (It is worth noting, for example, that in Canada at least, we already do this with criminal court decisions involving minors, which are anonymized; as are family law cases in Québec.) And third, Mr. McLaughlin insisted that, with the increased availability of all sorts of information about everyone, our social mores will need to change. We must become more willing to forgive, and to give people second chances.

This is perhaps optimistic. Then again, so is the proponents’ belief that a corporation can be made to weigh, impartially and conscientiously, considerations of the public interest and the right to “informational self-determination” (which is, apparently, the theoretical foundation of the “right to be forgotten”). And I have argued already that new social norms will in fact emerge as we get more familiar with the internet environment in which we live, and in which our digital shadows are permanently unstuck in time. In any case,what is certain is that these issues are not going to go away anytime soon. It is also clear that this Intelligence Squared debate is an excellent place to start, or to continue, thinking about them. Do watch it if you can.

Sociétés Anonymes?

I have posted a number of times about the problem of (unwanted) publicity which the appearance of one’s name in judicial decisions might bring (my posts on this topic are collected here). Because judicial decisions are widely and freely available on the internet, being identified as a party to a lawsuit can damage one employment prospects; it can reveal details about one’s personal life, financial situation, or health problems; it can even, in an extreme case, be outright dangerous. So I have been wondering aloud whether we would not do well to apply the rule which Québec already has for family law cases: the parties are not identified in the courts’ reasons for judgment. In this way, the public can still, as I put in an earlier post, “know what evidence was before the court and what the court did with it,” which is important for keeping the law accessible and the courts accountable, but without compromising the actual people involved.

I want to come back to this question, because I think that my previous attempts to grapple with it missed an important issue. All of the cases which my previous posts on this topic discussed involved individuals, at least as parties seeking anonymity. But much litigation involves corporations rather than physical persons. If we think about expanding the anonymization of cases, then we must address the issue of what to do about corporate parties. Is anonymity warranted for them too? It is interesting that the only categorical anonymity rules in Canadian law (at least those that I am aware of) concerns types of cases where corporations cannot be involved, namely family law proceedings in Québec and criminal cases were the accused is a minor. But could a requirement of anonymity, or even an entitlement to anonymity, be applied in “ordinary” cases which might involve corporate as well as individual parties?

These questions, in turn, force us to think again about the purpose of anonymity, even for individuals. Is the reason we anonymize certain cases the protection of privacy or that of reputation? These two interests are closely related, but not identical. (Actually, this might be a controversial assertion. The Supreme Court has invoked privacy as a reason for protecting individual reputations. I think this is wrong, but I cannot defend this claim here. I will only say that privacy, in my view, is a right to be left alone; it would matter even on a desert island. Reputation, by contrast, only makes sense in a context where you associate with others. It is the opinion others have of you.)

In some cases, the driving concern is surely privacy ― as in A.B. v. Bragg Communications Inc., 2012 SCC 46, [2012] 2 S.C.R. 567, where the Supreme Court authorized a teenager who was the victim of cyberbullying to proceed anonymously against her tormentors. But in other cases, I am not so sure. Is it really privacy, for instance, that justifies hiding the identities of minors who are accused ― and even of those who are convicted ― of crimes? Unlike, say, that teenager’s personal life, a crime, especially one that has been proven in court, is not exactly a private matter. It personally concerns a number of people other than the perpetrator, it concerns the state, and it possibly concerns the public at large. Arguably, the better reason for anonymity in such cases is a solicitude for the reputation of the accused, for their ability eventually to make a life for themselves free from the stain of the faults of their youth.

The distinction matters because it would be, it seems to me, somewhat strange to say that corporations have a right to privacy which the law ought to protect. The law does, however, protect corporate reputations. (For example, corporations are capable of  suing in defamation ― in Canada at least (as well as in the UK); some Australian states have severely limited their ability to do so.) If the reason for anonymity in judicial decision is privacy, corporations should not benefit from it. If it is reputation ― well, the question is more difficult.

As I suggested in an earlier post, “there is … a legitimate public interest in knowing what is happening to whom, or who exactly is involved in stories that attract attention.” There is also a legitimate public interest in knowing that somebody ― whether an individual or a corporation ― is “bad guy,” which a judicial decision can reveal. A blanket rule of anonymity for any and all cases would surely be a bad idea (quite apart from questions about its constitutionality). But what about more limited rules? What about rules that allow the successful party (whether plaintiff or defendant) to remain anonymous? Would such rules even be workable? I’m not sure about that. Much as before, I have very few answers here. I just wanted to add another consideration to my and, I hope, your ongoing reflection.

Remain Nameless

I wrote in the past, here and here, about the serious problems that can result from people’s involvement in lawsuits, and details of their private lives and quarrels being exposed for all to see in court decisions available on the internet. But bad as it is if your name being associated with a lawsuit prevents you from getting a job or lets your neighbours know things about you that you don’t want them to, the dangers are worse for some people, as a case now before the Québec Court of Appeal illustrates.

The case concerns the constitutionality of the requirement of s. 59 of the Civil Code of Québec that a person applying for a change of name in Québec be a Canadian citizen. The appellants, who brought the constitutional challenge, are a parent and child who were granted refugee status because of a risk of persecution by the state and/or their relatives, including the spouse/other parent in their native country. In order to avoid the spouse tracing them in Canada, they seek to have their names changed. But s. 59 CCQ prevents this until they become Canadian citizens―which will not happen for several years at best. The Superior Court dismissed their constitutional challenge for lack of service to an interested party―the spouse/other parent (escaping from whom is the whole point), and they are appealing.

They have also brought a motion to ensure the confidentiality of the proceedings, on which the Court ruled last week in Droit de la famille 123545, 2012 QCCA 2224. The appellants asked for

the right to proceed anonymously, a prohibition on access to court records through a permanent sealing order, a prohibition on access to any resulting judgment unless any passage that could be used to identify the appellant, the child and the other parent have been removed, as well as a publication ban designed to protect the identification and location of the appellant and the child (par. 16).

As the Court pointed out, there are important considerations at stake. On the one hand, there is the principle of open court, which is especially compelling in this case since it involves a challenge to a the constitutionality of a statute. But “[o]n the other hand, the appellant and/or the child would face the likelihood of serious harm, including the risk of kidnapping and even death, if some relatives were made aware of their whereabouts” (par. 15).

Balancing these factors, the Court granted the motion in part. It allowed the appeal to proceed anonymously, using pseudonyms, rather than only banning the publication of identifying information (while still making it available to media or lawyers) as is usual in family cases in Québec. Instead of sealing the entire court file, however, it ordered the creation of two separate files, one sealed, and the other, accessible to the public, from which identifying information will have been removed. The Court also refused to ban the publication of judgments, so long as they do not identify the appellants. It did grant the ban on publication of identifying information, which is already standard practice in family matters in Québec.

Sounds right to me. The decision on the constitutional challenge itself will be interesting. Stay tuned.

A Question for the SCC

I wrote on Friday, in a post about A.B. v. Bragg Communications Inc., 2012 SCC 46, the Supreme Court’s recent decision allowing a victim of cyber-bullying to bring her defamation suit against the person responsible for it anonymously, that “the interesting question” about the decision is how far does its principle extend:

In other words, is this a case about cyber-bullying of children, or about any form of unpleasantness involving children, or about cyber-bullying generally, or about something broader still?

I am not the only one asking the question. The blawg All About Information does too, in its own comment on A.B., wondering “about the scope of the class the Court intended to protect.” As it observes,

[s]ome text in the decision would suggest the class is limited to children subject to sexualized cyberbullying … At the same time, the Court made a number of broad statements about the impact of bullying on children in general, whether online or in the physical world and whether sexualized or based on some other vulnerability.

Its conclusion is that

[p]erhaps the best way to read the decision is that its binding effect extends to sexualized cyberbullying, but it is also authority for like protection in other bullying scenarios experienced by children.

For my part, I still think that some of what the Court said can used, at least as a basis for arguments, in an even wider spectrum of cases: cases of cyber-intimidation or harassment where the victim is an adult, or perhaps other sorts of claims where the victim might be deterred from going to court by the publicity that such a process can bring, like defamation.

Only future cases will tell whether any of that is true.

There’s Nothing in That Name

This morning, the Supreme Court delivered a decision that is a further small step in the debate about the right of litigants to privacy and the right of the public to know what goes on in our courtrooms. I blogged about these issues here and here.

The applicant in the case, A.B. v. Bragg Communications Inc., 2012 SCC 46, is a teenage victim of cyber-bullying. Someone created a fake Facebook profile using her name and picture and wrote all manner of nasty things there. In order to sue that person for defamation, she applied for a court order to compel the internet provider associated with the I.P. address that was used to create the fake profile to disclose the name of the person to whom the address belonged. As part of that application, she also requested the right to proceed anonymously and a ban on the publication of the contents of the fake profile.

The internet provider did not oppose this application, but Global Television and the Halifax Herald did oppose the application for the right to proceed anonymously and the publication ban. They succeeded both at first instance and on appeal, with the courts concluding that the applicant failed to show how the publication of her name and details of the bullying she suffered would harm her. (The media then failed to defend their position before the Supreme Court, which appointed an amicus curiae to do it. Perhaps it dawned on them, rather late in the game, that this was not the best case to defend the freedom of the press.)

The Supreme Court allowed the appeal in part, in a unanimous decision by Justice Abella, holding that evidence of harm to the individual applicant was not necessary in a case such as this to support the right of the applicant to proceed anonymously. “Objective harm”―that is, a legal presumption of harm―is sometimes enough to justify banning the publication of certain details about legal proceedings. This is a case that warrants drawing the presumption. The law is especially solicitous of children’s privacy because it recognizes their vulnerability, and “[i]t is logical to infer that children may suffer harm through cyberbullying” (par. 20). Furthermore, says Justice Abella (par. 20)

we must consider the resulting inevitable harm to children — and the administration of justice — if they decline to take steps to protect themselves because of the risk of further harm from public disclosure.

As for the public interest in open courts, it is not much affected by allowing a victim of cyber-bullying to proceed anonymously. Just as in sexual assault cases where the publication of the victim’s identity is prohibited, the media can still attend the hearings, see and hear the evidence, and present the details of the case, except the victim’s name, to the public. Once the applicant is allowed to proceed anonymously, there is no need for a further publication ban, says Justice Abella, because the harm that she might suffer would result from tying the allegations of the fake profile to her, and not for their mere airing.

That seems like the right decision, so far as it goes. The interesting question, however, is whether it can go further. There is some ambiguity, as is usual in common law cases, especially those addressing novel issues, about which of the arguments that the decision relies on are essential and which are not. In other words, is this a case about cyber-bullying of children, or about any form of unpleasantness involving children, or about cyber-bullying generally, or about something broader still?

The decision makes much of the special vulnerability of children and of the special harms of cyber-bullying. But must the two be present in a case in order to trigger the presumption that harm to the victim will result from the publication of his or her name? What if the case is about old-fashioned schoolyard bullying? Or what if it’s cyber-bullying, but the victim is an adult? Justice Abella also mentions the risk that victims will be discouraged to come forward if the nasty things said about them will end up all over the media. That’s surely right, and not only in cyber-bullying (and sexual assault) cases. It affects defamation cases generally, for instance, since the media is entitled to report on the allegedly defamatory statements if they are the object of litigation. And the idea that the harm to freedom of expression and freedom the press from the anonymization of court cases is minimal can be applied in all sorts of cases, as I discuss in my previous posts on this topic.

Only future cases will tell what the courts will make of these possibilities.

What’s in a Name?

The CBC has a story about criticisms of Ontario’s rules which allow the publication of the parties’ names in family law court decisions. The availability of these decisions online, especially on CanLII, makes them widely accessible―and people are concerned about others learning the details of their divorces, their personal information, or even seeing allegations made against them, with or without basis, by acrimonious exes. Some people say that a rule like that in Québec, where parties (and their places of residence) in family law cases are identified only by initials would be better to protect the parties’ privacy, while still letting the public and the media know what issues court cases are about and how the courts deal with them. But judges and government officials seem uninterested in considering such a change, pointing to the fact that courts can already order elements of the evidence to be kept confidential.

I wrote a long post on this same issue―though not only in family law cases―last month. About Québec’s rule of anonymity, I wrote that it is based on

[t]he idea―and I think it is a sound one―… that (many of) the positive effects of publicity can result from publishing the court’s decision but not the parties’ names. From the perspective of keeping the courts accountable, the publication of the parties’ names probably matters little; what is important is that journalists, lawyers, and interested citizens know what evidence was before the court and what the court did with it. On the other hand, there is also a legitimate public interest in knowing what is happening to whom, or who exactly is involved in stories that attract attention.

I didn’t know, and I still don’t, how to balance these considerations. I concluded with some questions, which bear repeating:

Does our general presumption of publicity of court materials still make sense in this new reality that the internet has brought about? Or should we re-balance free speech and privacy, perhaps by making anonymization the default rule? If so, should we make exceptions? A blanket anonymity rule might be problematic, because there are cases where knowing who is involved is very much in the public interest. But are exceptions workable? If not, does this mean we should abandon anonymity after all?

The Only Thing Worse Than Being Talked About

Is being talked about in a court decision that’s available online for all to see. At least if you’ve sued a former employer, and are looking for a new job. At the Volokh Conspiracy, Eugene Volokh reports on a case in which a man who believes he lost employment opportunities because prospective employers found out about his lawsuit against a previous employer sued companies providing both general internet search and specialized legal databases for making available online materials relating to that litigation. The complaint alleged violations of a variety of statutory and common law rules, but the court dismissed all these claims. The court added that publication of matters of public record, such as court proceedings and materials is, in any event, constitutionally protected.

I think that, in these circumstances, the outcome would be the same in Canada. I cannot see how the publication of court materials, unless the court itself ordered them to remain confidential, can amount to a common law tort; nor am I aware of any statutes that would prohibit it regardless of the circumstances (more on limited exceptions shortly). The constitutional situation is a bit different, since the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not directly apply to the common law, though it would apply to a statute.  That difference wouldn’t matter here.

In any case, what concerns me right now is not the current legal situation or the question, which prof. Volokh addresses, whether there “is an adequate justification for suppressing speech about legal documents that have been released by the courts as a public record.” (His response is negative, and I think he is right.) It is the antecedent question whether any and all legal documents should be made matters of public record.

Generally speaking, our legal system favours publicity. The publicity of judicial proceedings helps ensure the impartiality, and perhaps also the quality, of judicial work. As with other branches of government, publicity is important for accountability. Closed, secret, or inaccessible courts are a hallmark of authoritarian political systems. In Edmonton Journal v. Alberta (Attorney General), [1989] 2 S.C.R. 1326, the Supreme Court has held that the openness of court proceedings, including the ability of the media to report on them, is an important constitutional value.

Important, but not absolute. The usual presumption of publicity can be overturned in particular cases, where the disclosure of elements of the evidence, normally a matter of public record, may compromise the impartiality of the proceedings (for example by influencing potential jurors) or reveal privileged information, such as commercial secrets. Such cases are regarded as exceptional; importantly, a party who wants the court to make some element of the case confidential has to ask the court to do so, which can be expensive and which many will not think of doing. (For example, refugee claimants rarely ask that their cases before the Immigration and Refugee Board or the Federal Court be anonymized, although if memory serves well, they are entitled to do so.)

But there are also some categorical rules which apply automatically, without a party having to do anything. At issue in Edmonton Journal was one such rule, prohibiting the publication of all sorts of details about family law cases. The Supreme Court held that the law was much too restrictive and thus an unconstitutional restriction of the freedom of expression. But narrower restrictions exist. For instance the names of minors involved in criminal cases are not published – the defendants are known by their initials. And in Québec, family law cases are identified by a number, rather than the name of the parties, with the names of the parties and the places where they live being replaced by initials in the court’s reasons (incidentally, the Alberta statute in Edmonton Journal allowed the publication of these details; Québec’s rule is essentially its mirror image).

The idea – and I think it is a sound one – seems to be that (many of) the positive effects of publicity can result from publishing the court’s decision but not the parties’ names. From the perspective of keeping the courts accountable, the publication of the parties’ names probably matters little; what is important is that journalists, lawyers, and interested citizens know what evidence was before the court and what the court did with it. On the other hand, there is also a legitimate public interest in knowing what is happening to whom, or who exactly is involved in stories that attract attention.

And now I’m coming back to the case I considered at the beginning of the post. So long as access to court materials, or even to judgments, was time-consuming, difficult and expensive, it mattered little that publicity was the rule in most cases. Realistically, only news media would bother accessing these records, and then only in a few cases which attracted sufficient attention to make the effort and expense worthwhile. The internet changes that. It is fairly easy, and relatively cheap or even free, to find materials (at least judgments) from any case one is interested in. Indeed, one need not even know there is a case. It is enough to google someone’s name to find court decisions involving that person. An employer who would not have gone to the courthouse to rummage through files just to see if a prospective employee had ever been involved in litigation can find this out in a matter of seconds from the comfort of his office. Indeed, he may find it accidentally – he might google an applicant’s name without the intention of finding out about the applicant’s litigation history, looking for something else – but that just comes up. However the information comes out, it can be very – and unfairly – damaging, As prof. Volokh points out,

[m]any employers would likely be wary of hiring someone who had sued a past employer, because they might view this as a sign of possible litigiousness. Even if the earlier lawsuit was eminently well-founded, a prospective employer might not take the time and effort to investigate this, but might just move on to the next candidate, especially if [the candidate] is one of several comparably well-credentialed candidates for the same spot.

So here are some questions. Does our general presumption of publicity of court materials still make sense in this new reality that the internet has brought about? Or should we re-balance free speech and privacy, perhaps by making anonymization the default rule? If so, should we make exceptions? A blanket anonymity rule might be problematic, because there are cases where knowing who is involved is very much in the public interest. But are exceptions workable? If not, does this mean we should abandon anonymity after all?

I don’t have answers to these questions. I would love to hear from you.