Criminal Trials: Public, Private ... Secret?

In the News

The media recently reported that a criminal trial was held in Quebec in total secret. No one other than the people participating in the trial knew that it was happening. What does the law say about public access to criminal trials?

Criminal Trials Are Usually Public

In general, anyone can enter the courtroom and watch a criminal trial. People who do so can see and hear

  • the prosecutor’s evidence against the accused,
  • the accused’s evidence in defense, if any, and
  • the verdict decided by the judge or the jury.

Criminal trials are usually public for a couple of reasons.

First, someone accused of a crime has the right to a public and fair trial. In other words, having courts and prosecutors hold a criminal trial in front of a public audience helps to make sure the trial will be fair for the accused.

Second, it’s good for the public to see the evidence that leads to someone being found guilty or not guilty. This helps everyone learn about how the criminal justice system works.

Civil trials are also usually open to the public, but there are some exceptions like youth protection and family matters.

Courts Can Sometimes Make Criminal Trials Private

A court can make an exception and order that all or part of a criminal trial be closed to the public if necessary.

The court must consider many factors and weigh the pros and cons when making this decision. One of these factors is whether witnesses will be safe and able to testify fully and freely if the trial is public.

But, private criminal trials still can’t be a secret.

Criminal Trials Can Never Be Held in Secret

You might be wondering how people found out about the criminal trial that was held in secret. A different court discovered it when the accused asked this court to review the verdict.

This court said that this trial shouldn’t have been held in secret. It also said in its decision that all Quebec courts must tell the public when private criminal trials take place. To do this, they must

  • give private criminal trials a court number, and
  • include this court number on the daily list of cases being heard by the court.

These measures make sure that the media can challenge a privacy order in court if they think it’s in the public’s best interest to know more about a criminal trial.