Shifting Balance Between Privacy and Openness in the Tribunal World of Justice

Public access to court proceedings is the normal practice in Court proceedings to the justice system (courts and tribunals) as it ensures justice is administered in a fair manner, in accordance with the principle of freedom of expression, found in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, until recently, openness and transparency did not extend to Ontario’s Tribunals, which make decisions on a wide range of matters

The tribunal system was initially set up with the idea that people could use it as an alternative to the court system to achieve faster, less expensive and easier resolutions. Tribunals, were part of the justice system but operated outside of the principles of openness and transparency.

This article highlights a recent decision of the Superior Court of Justice in Ontario leading case that initiated significant change to the operation of Tribunals in Ontario. We will highlight some emerging issues facing Tribunals in finding the balance between protecting privacy while being accountable to foundational principles of openness and transparency.

Tensions between privacy and openness

In this age of the Internet, the publication of justice system information can lead to serious privacy consequences. As a result, tensions arise between two competing justice values – an open and accessible justice system and the right to privacy.

Questions arise about how to protect the personal information of individuals involved in court and tribunal processes while continuing to foster openness and accountability. It is a difficult balance to reach.

Rules for privacy differ between courts and tribunals

Seeking justice through the criminal court system can be a gruelling, intimidating and de-humanizing process for individuals. This is evidenced through media coverage of high profile cases where credibility goes on trial, private lives go under the microscope and the victims forced to re-live the trauma every day in the courtroom.

The Province’s various administrative tribunals make decisions on a range of issues from landlord and tenant disputes to human rights complaints. Documents and records have in the past typically not been readily accessible. Up until May 2019 the rules of disclosure in the formal court system as well as the principles of transparency and openness were not considered a part of the tribunal system. Access to administrative tribunal records and proceedings was inconsistent — either at the discretion of the respective tribunal or through access-to-information requests under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA).

What changed?

In April 2018, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice released its decision in Toronto Star v. AG Ontario, finding that the application of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act to administrative tribunals violates the principle of freedom of expression embedded in section 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The court agreed with the Star that tribunals needed to implement changes to be more open and accessible, transparent and rigorous – necessary to maintain the integrity of the system. Previously, there had been a good deal of secrecy, misinformation, selective disclosure of information, delay, and cost. The result is that the public has had no consistent right and ability to see how decisions are made and on what basis.

The decision in this case significantly transformed how tribunals operate. The outcome had broad ramifications for all judicial tribunals. The court clearly confirmed that tribunals are not simply a function of government, but have adjudicative powers like courts and need to operate openly, like courts.

Bringing Openness into the World of Tribunals

As a response to the decision in the Star case, in May 2019, Tribunals Ontario released a new policy confirming they are now guided by the open court principle and committed to transparency, accountability and accessibility in decision-making and operations.

The open court principle allows the public and media access to tribunal proceedings. It ensures effectiveness of the evidentiary process, encourages fair and transparent decision-making, promotes the integrity of the justice system and informs the public about its operation.

Openness and access to information is fundamental to gaining public confidence in the justice system and in building public understanding of how the administration of justice is maintained.

New challenges for Tribunals

Tribunals now must refine the balance between openness and the privacy concerns of vulnerable people who share sensitive personal information during proceedings. Most decisions and orders of Tribunals Ontario tribunals are available online without charge on CanLII and in some cases on boards’ or tribunals’ websites.

Privacy should never defeat the foundational principles of openness and accountability in tribunal processes, however, where individuals are involved in tribunal processes, their privacy deserves respect and protection.

Maintaining consistency in the balance of privacy and openness

The Canadian Judicial Council plays a leadership role in initiating discussions and debate about the development of electronic access policies. The Council has stipulated that it is important to encourage, to the extent possible, a consistent approach to the use of personal information by courts and administrative tribunals in their decisions and the posting of those decisions on websites.

The CJC’s model protocol on publication of personal information in court decisions, published in 2005, places the onus on judges, not publishers, to limit disclosure of personal information. It provides specific recommendations for protecting the privacy of personal information, characterized as “omitting personal data identifiers which by their very nature are fundamental to an individual’s right to privacy.” It identifies certain information, such as name and date of birth, social insurance number and financial account numbers, as being worthy of protection in written decisions because of the risks associated with disclosing them:

Concluding remarks:

  1. Openness and transparency are fundamental principles of our justice systems – courts and tribunals must respect these principles in their operations.
  2. Withholding public access to records or information for proceedings is unconstitutional and no longer allowed
  3. Privacy and protection of personal information are secondary to the principles of accessibility and transparency
  4. Development of specific electronic policies and promoting wide-spread adoption of them is an important step towards maintaining consistency in the balance of privacy and openness in the justice system.

Contact Justin W. Anisman

Contact Justin W. Anisman, the author of this blog, about any employment law related questions or issues you may be facing. Call 416-304-7005 or email him at janisman@btlegal.ca.

Justin W. Anisman is an Employment Lawyer at the Toronto law firm Brauti Thorning LLP. Justin advises both companies and individuals in all aspects of employment law including wrongful dismissal, human rights and discrimination.


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