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CIVIL EVIDENCE - Documentary evidence - Publication bans and confidentiality orders - Sealed evidence

Friday, June 11, 2021 @ 12:52 PM  

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Appeal by the estate trustees from a decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal that lifted sealing orders granted by the application judge. The unexplained deaths of a prominent couple in their home generated intense public interest. The estate trustees obtained sealing orders of the probate files. The orders were challenged by a journalist. The application judge sealed the probate files, finding the harmful effects of the sealing orders were substantially outweighed by the salutary effects on privacy and physical safety interests. The Court of Appeal lifted the sealing orders on the basis that the privacy interest advanced lacked a public interest quality and there was no evidence of a real risk to anyone’s physical safety.

HELD: Appeal dismissed. Privacy could be an important public interest under the test for discretionary limits on court openness where it could be shown that the protection of human dignity was at serious risk. It had to be demonstrated that the information was sufficiently sensitive such that it could be said to strike at the biographical core of the individual and that there was a serious risk that without an exceptional order, the affected individual would suffer an affront to their dignity. The estate trustees had failed to establish a serious risk to the important public interest in privacy, predicated on dignity, that overcame the strong presumption of openness. The information contained in the probate files did not reveal anything particularly private or highly sensitive and did not strike at the core identity of the affected individuals. Merely associating the affected individuals with the couple’s unexplained deaths was not sufficient to constitute a serious risk to the identified important public interest in privacy, defined in reference to dignity. The record did not show a serious risk of physical harm to any affected individuals. Any inference of a serious risk of physical harm was speculative.

Sherman Estate v. Donovan, [2021] S.C.J. No. 25, Supreme Court of Canada, R. Wagner C.J. and M.J. Moldaver, A. Karakatsanis, R. Brown, M. Rowe, S.L. Martin and N. Kasirer JJ., June 11, 2021. Digest No. TLD-June72021015-SCC