Can I go to court to watch what goes on?

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During the pandemic, health and safety measures including wearing facemasks and limiting the number of people in a courtroom may be in place to protect court users. See our COVID-19 web page and Notices To the Profession and the Public for any such protocols.

Do you enjoy watching Law and Order or The Good Wife? Real proceedings in Canadian courts aren’t quite like the ones portrayed on those TV shows, but they can be both interesting – even dramatic - and educational. Why not visit your local courthouse to see what’s going on?

This eNews explains what to expect if you’d like to watch Provincial Court in action.

Visitors welcome!
The Provincial Court welcomes people who want to watch what happens in its courtrooms. Public access to court proceedings is an important principle in Canada. The Supreme Court of Canada has said:

The open court principle is of crucial importance in a democratic society. It ensures that citizens have access to the courts and can, as a result, comment on how the courts operate and on proceedings that take place in them. Public access to the courts also guarantees the integrity of judicial processes inasmuch as the transparency that flows from access ensures that justice is rendered in a manner that is not arbitrary, but is in accordance with the rule of law.

CBC v. Canada (Attorney General) 2011 SCC 2

Trials and most other hearings in Provincial Court are open and public proceedings, and you are welcome to attend court to listen and observe. However, while it rarely occurs, the law does permit a judge to order that a hearing in Provincial Court be closed in a few special circumstances, usually to protect the privacy of children or vulnerable people.

In addition, proceedings that focus on mediation and settlement, such as settlement conferences and family case conferences, are generally limited to the parties involved and their lawyers.

In the rare cases when a courtroom is closed to the public, there will be a sign on the door, or a sheriff will advise you. Otherwise, feel free to enter a courtroom even when court is in session, but please do so and sit down quietly to avoid disturbing the proceedings. Both the judge and the participants need to concentrate on the testimony and submissions.

Use of electronic devices restricted inside courtrooms
The B.C. Courts’ policy on the use of electronic devices in courtrooms sets out the rules for using electronic devices – including smartphones, cell phones, computers, laptops, tablets, notebooks, personal digital assistants, or any device capable of transmitting and/or recording data or audio.

Generally speaking, you may use electronic devices and access the internet in the lobbies and waiting areas of courthouses, but not in Provincial Court courtrooms, unless you are a lawyer, an accredited journalist, or have the judge's permission. Lawyers and accredited journalists may use electronic devices to receive or transmit from a courtroom, and accredited journalists may use them to record for note-taking purposes only.

So, when you enter a courtroom please turn off cell phones and other devices. If you are conducting a trial without a lawyer and want to use online resources during your trial, ask the judge for permission.

Taking photographs or videos not permitted
For the privacy and protection of people attending court, you may not take photographs or video inside a BC Provincial courthouse without the permission of the Chief Judge. Members of the media wishing to televise court proceedings in a particular case should make an application to the judge presiding in that case. This and other related policies are set out in the Court’s Access to Court Proceedings Policy.

Please come to observe
These restrictions are necessary to protect the people involved in court proceedings, and we hope they won’t discourage you from visiting court. When members of the public come to watch courts in action they contribute to our democracy – observing what goes on enables you to make informed comments on the justice system and how the courts fulfill their responsibilities. Having members of the public attend provides public scrutiny, and ensures that our courts and judges are accountable.

To find a courthouse near you check BC Provincial Court Locations and Hours. To see court lists check Court Services Daily Lists.

Can’t make it?
Another way to monitor what our courts do is to read the judges’ decisions posted online at Judgments & Decisions. Reading the judgments that explain the judges’ reasons will provide a broader perspective on what courts do on a daily basis than the media is generally able to provide.