VANCOUVER - A judge's ruling that denies televising a sentencing hearing for the first person to plead guilty in Vancouver's Stanley Cup riot has prompted the British Columbia government to back off its pledge to put cameras in the courts.
The government will respect the provincial court decision and has elected to rescind its directions to Crown lawyers to argue for the broadcast of trials of those charged in last June's fracas, Attorney General Shirley Bond said late Monday.
"Today's decision by the Provincial Court does not decide the merits of all riot broadcast applications, but does raise additional questions," Bond said in a statement. "The approach laid out by the judge in this decision is expected to consume more time than anticipated.
"That is why we are taking a step back to ensure that ongoing trials are not delayed."
Earlier in the day, provincial court Judge Malcolm MacLean ruled against an application to broadcast the sentencing of 20-year-old Ryan Dickinson, who has pleaded guilty to participating in the riot. He admitted to joining in as a massive crowd of people torched cars, smashed windows and looted stores last June 15 following the Vancouver Canuck's loss to the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup final.
Bond explained the government's move — which was defended by Premier Christy Clark as recently as that morning — as making a choice between the province's goals of timely justice and bringing greater transparency to the justice system.
"If we must choose between the two, we will pursue timely justice," she said.
"In the meantime, we will carefully consider Judge MacLean's decision, and we will continue to look for opportunities to make the justice system more transparent to all British Columbians."
MacLean said there were many issues that had yet to be addressed, including the safety of court personnel and judges, what will happen to the footage after it makes its way onto the Internet, how cameras will affect the right to a fair trial and the impact they could have on witnesses.
The judge concluded Dickinson's sentencing — scheduled for Tuesday — couldn't be delayed.
"In view of the constraints, including the imminent sentencing of Mr. Dickinson, the lack of his consent, the lack of all necessary information, I am satisfied that proceeding further with the broadcast application in this particular case is inappropriate," MacLean told a Vancouver courtroom.
Instead, MacLean said a lawyer known as an amicus curiae — Latin for "friend of the court" — should be appointed to explore those issues in greater detail.
He noted his decision would not be binding on future cases, where other judges might have different concerns.
Dickinson sat in the prisoner's box wearing red jail garb, listening intently with his hands in his lap.
His lawyer, Greg DelBigio, opposed the application. He argued in court last week that the request to televise Dickinson's case was political.
MacLean rejected that argument.
"I have not found that this application or any actions taken in the prosecution of this matter are politically motivated," said MacLean.
Outside court, DelBigio declined to discuss the case in detail, but welcomed the judgment.
"I think the judge made it fairly clear that there are a number of important and unanswered questions," DelBigio told reporters on the steps of the courthouse.
Before the government changed its course, Crown spokesman Neil MacKenzie said his department would review the decision and make any necessary changes to future applications.
The Crown had initially signalled its intention to make such applications for every case related to the Stanley Cup riot.
Premier Christy Clark included the surprising pledge to televise Stanley Cup riot trials in her throne speech last year, arguing that people who trashed stores and torched cars in public should have no problem appearing before cameras to face justice.
More recently, Clark and her attorney general argued the applications were about openness, not public shaming.
Clark had defended the decision to apply for cameras in the courts earlier in the day over private radio.
"Whatever happens with that, my view has always been we need to have more openness in our courtrooms," Clark said on radio station CKNW. "People need to understand how justice works."
The province's criminal justice branch had never before made an application to broadcast the proceedings of a trial — not under Clark or any other government. The Stanley Cup riot case marked the first time Clark raised the issue of cameras in the courts since being named premier last year.
Televised legal proceedings are incredibly rare in Canada, although courts in B.C. have policies that allow media outlets or lawyers involved in a case to apply to have cameras inside the courtroom.
Most recently, a B.C. Supreme Court judge allowed cameras to record closing arguments during a landmark constitutional case regarding Canada's anti-polygamy law. A broader application to broadcast the entire trial, including testimony from witnesses, was denied.
Formal guidelines were created in B.C. in 2001 outlining when television cameras can be allowed into the courtrooms and what restrictions should be placed upon them.
The introduction of that policy followed a case a year earlier involving a high-profile human smuggling trial, which was believed to be the first in the province's history to permit cameras inside a courtroom. The presiding judge allowed cameras to capture video and still photographs of the lawyers during closing arguments.
However, an effort to have cameras record proceedings in the case against former premier Glen Clark in 2001 was turned down.
Meanwhile, Vancouver police announced Monday they had forwarded another batch of files to Crown counsel, recommending new charges against 25 people.
So far, police have recommended charges against a total of 125 people, but Crown counsel has only approved charges against 47.